Harry Potter and the Great Estate Planning Fiasco

A lot of families find it helpful to hear what other families have done in their estate planning, and they get ideas from what others have done.  It’s most helpful, I think, when you know something about the family itself, so let’s talk about Harry Potter. (We have previously discussed Batman here)

Who will care for the orphan?

Harry was famously orphaned as an infant when his parents were murdered by Voldemort. At the time, though, it was believed that Sirius Black had either killed them or was involved in their killing.  Because Harry’s parents, James and Lily, had named Sirius as Harry’s godfather, under wizarding law that would mean he was the designated guardian for Harry in the event something happened to the parents, which of course, it did.  But because it was believed that Sirius was involved in the killing, Dumbledore stepped in and took Harry to be raised by his relatives, the Dursleys, which in hindsight was a very bad deal for Harry.

[If you’re interested in more case studies and discussion about how the wizarding world handles it orphans, like Tom Riddle and Teddy Lupin, you might want to check out this chatboard. ]

In the muggle world, if a family had named a designated guardian for the child who was determined to have killed the parents, a court, much like Dumbledore, would likely determine that person not to be a suitable guardian, and refuse to appoint them, even though the parent’s had named that person.  A judge will always look to see if the named person is otherwise suitable at the time the appointment comes along, thus protecting the child much as Dumbledore attempted to do.

While James and Lily could not have predicted that Sirius would be alleged to have been involved in their murder, they could have predicted that for a variety of reasons Sirius might not be able to serve as guardian when the time arose, and their best course of action would have been to name backup guardians.  With an apparently large number of close friends in the wizarding world, naming a backup to Sirius would have allowed Dumbledore to consider other people as guardian before turning to the Dursley’s, and Harry might have been spared the closet and abuse he endured as a young child.

How to handle the money

Lily and James also would have needed to create a plan for the property and money they had, and how that would be left to Harry.  Kids who inherit from their parents while still minors are never handed the keys to the bank account, but they generally do get full access and control of the property and money as soon as they turn either 18 or 21, depending on the state. In the wizarding world the age is 17, so Harry would have gotten full control of everything in the Gringott’s Vault as soon as he turned 17, which is a scary thought for most parents. Butter Beer for all!

The better way for the Potters to have done this would have been to appoint a trusted person – and some back up people since Sirius would likely have been their first choice – to act as trustee for the property until Harry reached an age that they felt he would be able to appropriately handle the money.   Until that time, the trustee would make decisions about spending for Harry’s benefit.  The actual age chosen by each set of parents depends on what they know about their child, their own philosophy of money and adulthood, and the amount of money likely to be available. The scenes where Harry heads to the Gringott’s vault at the beginning of each school year and grabs a bunch of money, with no supervision and no thought about budgeting or accounting, should make every parent cringe.  Setting up your estate plan to avoid that is easily accomplished.

If you’re ready to avoid your own estate planning fiasco, call or email us for a quick consultation on how we might be able to help. legal@parkercounsel.com or 833-RED-BOOT (833-733-2668)

You’re Forgetting Someone Important

Special needs planning when your child has siblings

(This guest post was written by Cassidy Parker Knight, the adult daughter of one of our attorneys. )

If you’re a parent of a child with special needs, you’ve probably spent some time wondering about what your child’s future will look like once you’re not around to take care of them anymore – maybe a lot of time, and maybe more worrying than wondering. Where will they live? What money will support them? Who will take care of them?

“the reason you’re worried is because you won’t be around, but the reason your other kids worry is because they will be around.” 

Cassidy and her big brother Dylan

            You may not realize it, but if you have other kids who aren’t disabled, they’ve thought about it too. Of course, the reason you’re worried is because you won’t be around, but the reason your other kids worry is because they will be around. They may worry that you plan on your disabled child living with them and they don’t want that, or they may worry that any financial burden will fall to them, and wonder what happens if they can’t afford it. If they’re older, they may worry that there is no plan, and that it will be all on them to figure out after you’re gone.

            I think I was in middle school the first time the thought occurred to me that someday, my parents would be gone and it would just be me left to care for my brothers. It’s overwhelming, at just 12, to start worrying not only about your parents dying someday, but all the lifelong responsibilities that will come with those deaths. And the older your kids get, the more aware they’ll become of what those responsibilities entail. I’ve spoken to siblings who made decisions about college, their profession, where they live, and whether they start families all based on their future responsibilities for their siblings.

            For a parent, it must be overwhelming to think about planning a future for your child that you won’t be a part of. It can be easy to think that you’re shielding your other kids from that worry, but in reality, the opposite is true. Your disabled child’s adult siblings are your biggest allies, and filling them in on any estate planning you’ve done or wishes for the future you have will also be a kindness to them. It can also help you both to spot problems with the plan while you still have a chance to make your voice heard—for instance, if you want your child with special needs to live with your abled child and you learn that your abled child doesn’t want that, it’s probably important to you that you have a say in the alternative.

            In all the conversations I’ve had with other siblings though, the most common worry I hear about the future is not about the responsibility or having to take care of their sibling—it’s about the uncertainty. If you have the estate planning under control, fill your child in, especially if they’re not really a child anymore. Let them know what roles they should and shouldn’t expect to play, and give them an opportunity to tell you whether that fits the role they want to play. Most importantly though, there should be a plan. If that part hasn’t been done yet, starting that process would really be the greatest kindness you could do all of your children.

How should Batman’s parents have done their estate plan?

One of our best known vigilante crime fighters, Batman, was orphaned at the age of 8 when his parents were murdered.  He swore to dedicate his life to fighting crimes like that which killed his parents, and by the time we see him in adulthood he has spent millions of his billion dollar fortune designing and building crime fighting gadgets galore and an elaborate secret cave for operations headquarters. Let’s see how that might have come about.

What issues do the Waynes have?

They own businesses, so they need succession planning to make sure the company can continue running.

They have a minor son, so they need to plan for his care until he grows up and for how and when they will give him the money he will inherit.

What did they own?

We don’t actually know if the elder Waynes left a will or any other estate planning, but I would guess it was incomplete, at best, as I’ll explain below.  We know that they had enormous wealth in the form of a number of profitable companies falling under the umbrella of Wayne Industries. There was money and potentially company ownership from Mrs. Wayne in addition to Wayne Industries, but it is less clear how that was owned and managed. This means that in addition to planning for the distribution of their personal wealth, Bruce’s parents also had to prepare succession planning for their businesses and business interests. 

And of course, the most important piece of their planning, and where I suspect they failed, was in the management and distribution of their wealth and businesses to their son.

Businesses

The Waynes appear to have had at least some succession planning in place for their businesses, as we know that the companies weathered the immediate period after their death and that they were thriving many years later when Bruce was flying about the town on his bat wings.  This meant that the companies must have had either a corporate structure or a well written set of bylaws or partnership agreement for an LLC or partnership structure. In a corporation, the company itself has the ability to replace leadership, adjust to circumstances and operate independently of whether their officers or any of their shareholders died unexpectedly. The passing of shares is generally controlled by specifically created and adopted company policies, or controlled by state law. 

In the case of an LLC or partnership, where there are typically fewer people involved in the running of the company, a plan setting out who owns shares versus who has the ability to run the company is important to prevent infighting or take over by inexperienced leaders. The Waynes do appear to have prevented the demise of their companies through advance planning of some sort. While Bruce, as their only heir (if they did not have a will), would have inherited their interests in the companies, as an 8 year old he would have been unable to run them, requiring the parents to prepare for the possibility of their early death by having other adults ready to step into company leadership roles. Written plans, along with properly adopted bylaws and policies within the company, would have allowed for this.

Bruce

We know that Bruce inherited all or the majority of his parents’ estates due to the seemingly bottomless pit of money he has access to in later life.  Most people do leave all or most of their estate to any children they have before considering gifts to other relatives or friends, and the Waynes seem to have followed this pattern. If they had no will at all, then in most states everything they owned would go to their child.  But as an 8 year old, Bruce would not have been able to exercise control of any money or property at that time. The best way to provide for minor children is through the creation of a trust that will hold their inheritance until they are older and allow an appropriate person or trust company to manage the inheritance until the child can take over.  If the Waynes did not have a will that created a trust for Bruce, a court would have  created one for him.  In that situation, when Bruce reached the age of majority, which today is usually age 18 but may have been 21 if we are talking about the Golden Age Batman, he would have been give all the fortune outright, having complete control over management and spending of the money as soon as he turned either 18 or 21.

If the Waynes had created a trust in advance, they would have been able to delay Bruce’s access to the entire sum of money, and they would have been able to allow time for him to learn how to handle such a large sum responsibly.  Some parents direct the trustee to pay for higher education or down payment on a home or even a sum toward starting a business, but access to full control by the child is delayed until an older age or a life milestone, such as obtaining a college degree.  If the amount of the inheritance is very large, it may be released to the child in stages, so that some money comes under their control while the rest stays in trust and protected from the missteps of youth.

Basically, you can set the trust up to do what you expect you would do for your child if you’d been alive and they asked for money. 

I suspect that Bruce’s parents did not have a trust set up for him because it is hard to imagine that the ways in which he used his money would have been green lighted for loans or gifts by his parents.  “Hey Mom and Dad, I want to spend a big chunk of your hard earned money to dig a giant hole under our tower (I’ll pay an engineer to make sure it doesn’t fall down) and then try to invent super high tech comic book toys so I can confront highly dangerous and violent criminals all alone.  Is that ok?”  

I like to think Mom and Dad would, at the very least, have required Bruce to provide a proof of concept and marketability study before backing this particular hobby.  Which is why I’m pretty sure young Bruce had sole control over his money at about the same age many young men buy their first car and then roll it into a ditch.

If you want to keep your young super heroes safe and solvent and protected from their own passions, a trust for minor’s is definitely the way to go.

Top 5 Mistakes People Make In their Wills

If you’re the average person living your life, and you’re one of the slightly less than 50% of the adult population who decides to actually write a will, for real, this time, then there’s a good chance you will make one of the following mistakes.  So to help you do the best job you can do with this important task (how important?  Just ask someone who had a parent or spouse die without a will) we’ve compiled the most common mistakes people make when writing their wills.

  1. Not finishing.  You’d be surprised how many people try to DIY their will but never actually finish signing them.  You have to sign in a very specific way, which varies depending on which state you live in but always involves some combination of you, witnesses, and a notary public.  Usually all these people have to be present at the same time and sign together, which makes it easy to put off and a lot of people never get around to it.  A will without the proper signatures is not a will. 
  2. Not updating.  A will should be reviewed and updated as your life changes.  Sometimes the problem is that what you own has changed significantly and the way you distributed it no longer makes the best sense.  More often, people you named as executor or other fiduciaries have died, become unreliable, or moved far away and can no longer serve. 
  3. Thinking that a will is all you need.  Not all of your property is disposed of by your will – if you have life insurance, or retirement accounts, and sometimes even your investment or ordinary bank accounts, have beneficiary designations.  This means that when you open the account, you are asked who you want to get the account at your death.  Anything you own that has a beneficiary designation will not be affected by your will.  This means you have to think about everything together and review (and change if needed) the beneficiary designations you have made at the same time you are preparing your will.  If you intend to give everything to your friend Bob, but you forgot that you named your friend Fred on your retirement account, then your intent will not be carried out. Also, there are other useful documents you may need to prepare in addition to a will, even though we tend to think about “writing a will” rather than “writing a HIPAA release,” there are a number of documents that typically are prepared when someone sits down to “do their will.”  These include a power of attorney, a medical power of attorney, a HIPAA release (that lets the people you name have access to otherwise private medical information), and a few others.  These documents will be needed in the event you become incapacitated, either temporarily or permanently.  If you are in a serious accident and spend months in a hospital or rehabilitation center, you will need other people to help handle your finances, your insurance claims, and other similar things, which they will not be able to do easily unless you have prepared these additional documents.
  4. Not letting people know about your will.  Once you have a will, and, hopefully, your other documents (see #3), you need to make sure people know they exist and where to find them when needed. 
  5. Thinking you can do it all yourself.  I know, this one sounds very self-important, but a lawyer really is useful when you want to write a will. If you want to make sure you do what you intend to do, hiring a lawyer is definitely the way to go.

Parker Counsel Legal Services consults with special needs families in Austin Texas, Dallas Texas, Western Mass, the New Hampshire Seacoast, and Northern New Jersey. Special needs trusts, guardianship, and more. Give us a call and tell us about your family situation for some guidance on how best to plan a safe, secure future for your child. 833-RED-BOOT (833-733-2668)

The Basics of Special Needs Trusts

What is a Special Needs Trust?   A special needs trust (SNT) is a tool that lets families provide money to take care of their adult kids without preventing them from receiving medicaid and services from related government programs.

Why do you need an SNT?  Medicaid benefits are available to people who 1) have a disability,  2) have very low income, and 3) have very few assets.   To qualify for medicaid, an individual cannot make more than approximately $1300 a month (specific amounts can be found on the social security website) and cannot have assets totaling more than $2000 (there are some items that are exempt from inclusion in the asset determination, like a home and a vehicle used for transportation).   If a parent is able to provide some money to make a good life for their child either through gift, inheritance or life insurance, the SNT is the way to do it.  Without the SNT, whatever money the parent leaves the child will have to be spent on basic care before government benefits can be used.

How does the SNT work?  Money or property the parent wants to make available to the child is put in the trust.  Most families use the trust to hold inheritance money, or they obtain life insurance that will be paid to the trust.  A trustee is appointed to spend the money on the child in accordance with the wishes of the parents or at the trustees discretion.  In order for the SNT to work for preserving medicaid eligibility, the money is to be used only for things that are NOT covered by government benefits, and cannot be paid directly to the child .

What happens to the money in the SNT if the child dies?  There are actually two types of SNT’s.  The first is created by parents or grandparents for the benefit of the child and funded with their own money and money from any person other than the child.  Money left in the trust upon the death of the child is distributed to beneficiaries who were named in the trust itself at the time it was created. Commonly, remaining money is left either to siblings or their children, or to a charity.

The other type of SNT is one that is created with money that actually belongs to the person with the disability.  These trusts are common when the disability is the result of an accident and there is a lawsuit or damages paid to the individual.  These may also be created if a parent dies and leaves money outright to the child without creating an SNT first. For these trusts, the money is used during the lifetime of the individual in the same way as for a trust created with other people’s money, and the individual may also receive government benefits.  But upon death, any money in the trust must first be used to repay the state for benefits received by the individual.

If you need to set up a special needs trust for your own child or grandchild, give us a call at 512-804-9934 or 413-203-9358  and we’ll be happy to help you out.

Life is not like a movie

While happily scrolling my facebook feed today, checking out what my friends’ kids wore to the first day of school, and who is outraged about what today, I was suddenly stopped in my tracks by this headline:  “Last hospitalized Pulse shooting survivor discharged after nearly three months.

Pulse?  That was the horrifying mass shooting in Orlando that happened, when, a long time ago, right?  Long enough ago that I’ve had time to be horrified, outraged, sickened, sad, and then . . . going on with my life.  So the news that one of the victims is only now getting out of the hospital, that one of the victims has been under hospital care for nearly the whole of summer, stopped me in my tracks.

Because it’s easy to forget that tragic, massive events don’t end once the story has been thoroughly reported.  They don’t unfold like in the movies, where victims or car accidents, or fatal diseases, or even mass shootings, either die or survive.  In the movies, victims who die are buried and eulogized, victims who survive get up and leave.

In real life, injuries bring your life into a different dimension.  Three months in the hospital can decimate whatever order you had in your life, and if, as is likely, the recovery will continue after release for months or years longer, your life will and must be different.

Which is why planning for the possibility of disruption in your life is so very important.  Legal, financial, and personal contingency plans make the difference between hardship and disaster.  They make the difference between stress about the injury, and stress about every single thing in your life. They make the difference between having the people you know love and care about you around helping, and not having them there.

Writing a will is important, but it’s only one small part of what you will do with an estate planning attorney.  You will also get help putting a plan in place that gets as close as possible in the event of a traumatic injury,  to keeping you focused on your injury and recovery, not on everything else.

When you plan with Pam, things go more smoothly.

A good time to take action

Do the words “wills”, “trusts,” “estates,” and “health care directives” make you think of tools that help protect your family and your wishes if death or incapacity strikes?  Or do you ignore those words, thinking they don’t apply to little old regular you?

October 19th-25th, 2015 marks National Estate Planning Awareness Week.  This week is to spread the word that estate planning is for everyone.  A young parent just starting out, a hard working middle ager realizing you are not immortal after all, a wealthy entrepreneur or a senior citizen looking at finite resources, estate planning provides a solid legal foundation for protecting your family, your financial security, your wishes and your independence through all of life’s transitions.

Prepare and Protect Your Family:  If you have minor children, estate planning allows you to appoint the people you want to raise them in the event of your unexpected death or incapacity.  Trusts allow you to protect minor children, or even adult children, who may not be prepared to receive a large sum of money after you die.  Health care directives and powers of attorney make it easier for your family to manage  medical and financial affairs during a health care crisis or unexpected incapacity.  And of course, estate planning keeps your loved ones from unnecessary court and legal fees, and the worst of family feuds during the emotional time of loss.

Distribute and Maximize Finances:   For both large estates and modest ones, estate planning ensures that more of your money goes to your family after your passing. Proper estate planning can also help senior citizens and baby boomers qualify for Medicaid and additional VA Pension Benefits for health care without becoming impoverished or “spending down” everything they own. Some professionals such as physicians and contractors also look to estate planning to shield their personal assets from lawsuits, creditors and other risks associated with their occupations. And families with children who have special needs can provide money for their care without jeopardizing access to government benefits.

Define Your Legacy:  Do you have assets you wish to leave to certain people? Are you in a non-traditional relationship or blended family and want to ensure your loved ones are taken care of and share in your inheritance after you are gone? Is there someone you trust to make important medical or financial decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so?   Without an estate plan in place, all of these personal decisions will be made by the courts if the unthinkable happens. This is why estate planning is such an important strategy in making sure your wishes are known and honored if tragedy strikes.

Your Peace of Mind:  With a well thought out estate plan in place, you have less to fear about the future – both for your own well being and that of your family members. Tools such as living trusts, powers of attorneys, insurance policies and health care directives can help you fund your future care needs and carefully design the life and independence you wish to enjoy during your later years.

Awareness is not enough—Take ACTION!

National Estate Planning Awareness Week is a great way to help more people become aware of estate planning and its role in  protecting your financial future and the people you love—the information is useless if you don’t take action!

Attorneys spend their days thinking of the worst that can happen, but its true that none of us ever know when our time will be up. Estate planning should  be taken care of early and often.  Make a plan and keep it up to date so that if an unexpected illness or accident happens, you won’t have lost out on the planning options once available to you.

Call for an appointment to discuss your own personal needs now.