In case of parents’ death . . .

It’s not often that stories are written about the exciting world of estate planning.

Tonight’s episode of the television show “Blackish” revolves around the parents’ realization that they haven’t, but should, name guardians for their children in case of their own deaths.  The kids are now pre-teens and tweens, so the parents decide they need to get moving on this.  Good for them!

But then it devolves into arguments over whose family would make the better caretakers, and whose family shouldn’t even be allowed near the kids, and we see some of the stress that leads parents to put this off until the need for it disappears. Fortunately, there are ways around this.  Watch this short youtube video I made a couple of years ago for ideas on what to do when you don’t know what to do.

If you need to do this important planning, give my office a call to set up an appointment to get it done.

And if you decide to pretend like you are immortal, you can listen to this song I found on Youtube while looking for my guardianship video.

Are disability benefits taxable?

I have a good friend who works at the IRS, and every year I get emails from her for about a week before April 15 reminding to get my taxes done.  It’s not that she thinks I’ll forget, she’s just so excited about Tax Day she can’t help herself!

Frankly, I don’t get nearly as excited about it as she does, but I do like to get them in on time and I really like to do them correctly.  So here’s the answer to the big question many families have when a member is receiving SSI benefits: do you have to file taxes?

SSI benefits, which are available to individuals over 18 who have a developmental disability and have never worked or who make only a very small income, (and some children under 18 whose families have lower incomes), are not taxable by the federal government.  If your child receives SSI benefits and has no other income, then it is not necessary to file a tax return.

However, if your child has other income – including social security benefits through a parent, then some of the income may be taxable and you may need to file a return.

For more information, you can check out IRS Publication 907.

Drop Everything! Where’s the POA??

stickman-310590_1280You wrote a will, completed a power of attorney (POA), and you review yearly to see if updates need to be made.  You are doing well and your family will be in good shape if something happens to you.

Or will they be?

Just as important as having those documents, is making sure your executor and agents can find them when they are needed.  If you’re in the hospital and your POA is needed to conduct important business for you, would your agent be able to find it?  Maybe you even gave your agent a copy of it and they have it in their possession – do they know where they put it?  Can they lay their hands on it quickly when they need it?

It may be years after you make these documents before they are needed.   Remembering where you put a piece of paper years ago can be a lot harder than you think.  Especially if the house has been rearranged, new furniture bought, maybe even a move . . . and then no one knows where the folder with mom’s POA has wound up.

I recommend a once a year document drill.  Pick a day – maybe your birthday – to lay hands on your will and other documents.  And if you have given copies to other family members, call them up and ask them to lay hands on the papers.  Simply reciting where they are kept is not enough. Tell them to go physically pick them up and look at them, then report back to you that they’ve done it.

They will thank you when the time comes to use those documents.

Death and disability planning is an ongoing process

arrow-945271_640 Life does not stand still, but your estate plan will if you don’t actively keep up with it. Planning is not a one time event.

If you have a current will or full estate plan, you know the feeling of relief that hits as soon as you sign that last paper.  It feels great to have your death and disability planning done. But as important as that is, it is just as important to review your documents regularly and make sure they still do what you need them to do.  Sometimes it’s obvious your will or other documents need to be changed, but some things that might trigger the need for revisions aren’t as obvious.

Major Life Changes


A marriage, a divorce, and a new child are all times when the lawyer should be called and updates made to your documents.  But you should also discuss whether changes are needed when you have a drastic change in income, or move to another state, or when you or a close family member develop a chronic health problem or disability.  All of these major life changes might require changes to your plan and should be discussed with your attorney.

Many Purchases Should Trigger Updates

Wills and trusts lawyers help you plan for what you own at the time you are planning, as well as any reasonaly likely changes.  But if you acquire or lose major property after you create your will, your plan may need to be updated. For example of you gain or lose a large life insurance policy or pension fund, or if you transfer assets from cash or stocks or real estate into another type of asset, there may be changes needed in your will to make sure that all property is distributed appropriately.


Annual Review

You may not need to make changes to your plan every year, but you should review your plan each year to be sure.  A simple read through of your documents may jog your memory as to things you wanted or needed to change.  Death and disability planning is intended to protect you and to carry out your wishes after death, and it is more likely to do so if you review regularly and keep it up to date.

Sensory processing, coats, and parenting

This morning I was sitting in a mostly empty parking lot checking my email and waiting for the post office to open.  A few spaces away a car pulled in and parked, and a small family got out – mom, dad, and a little girl who looked about two and a half years old.  She was dressed in a cute little skirt and top with a ribbon in her hair.  But it’s about 45 degrees here and windy this morning, so mom says, “Here’s your coat, I know you don’t like coats but you need to put it on because it’s cold.”

The sweet little girl instantly became a red faced, squealing, squirming bundle of terror on the parking lot pavement.  As mom and dad, showing the type of patience and teamwork that clearly indicated they had practiced this scene hundreds of time, struggled to get the coat on her, I flashed back to scenes from my own home during elementary school when my oldest daughter cried and tantrummed and raised the bar on things that make no sense when she would want to wear clothes that were two sizes too small for her, swear that anything that actually fit was about to fall off,  or want to wear the same thing she had already been wearing for a week.   I also flashed on one memorable morning when she angrily pulled every piece of clothing out of her dresser, tossing them on the floor while screaming that there was nothing for her to wear because all her clothes were “damp.”

This same daughter never had a good relationship with her coats, either.  She was constantly losing them. She would forget to put them on.  She would forget to pick them up when leaving a place.  She would forget she owned one.

In junior high, it became a running struggle to get her to wear one at all when headed off to school.  Since that’s a common theme for junior high kids (“I’m not cold, mom!”) I didn’t think too much about it, other than to think she would eventually suffer being cold enough that she would start wearing it.  But it continued on into high school.  On the coldest mornings (which, granted, are not all that cold here in central Texas) she would put on four shirts rather than wear her coat.  By the end of high school, I had stopped even buying her coats.

I convinced myself that her tacit decision to never wear a coat was actually a sign of her maturing into acceptance of the ADD  she had eventually been diagnosed with. If you can’t figure out a way to stop losing your coats, then stop wearing them. You can’t lose a coat you don’t have, after all.

But it turns out it was a bit more complicated than that. One evening a few months ago my daughter, now 19 and a freshman in college, called me as she was walking across campus to her dorm on an evening when the safety escort service was closed.  It was about a twenty minute walk to her dorm and she thought if she was on the phone she would be safer from attack – I don’t know if that’s true but at least I ‘d be able to call for help immediately if something did happen.

During the conversation the weather came up.  It had been unusually cold here and that night was in the twenties as she trekked across the campus.

I said “you’re not wearing a coat, are you?” and she answered “no, I have a sweater on and four shirts, though.”

Me: “I figured you wouldn’t be wearing one, but when it’s this cold you really should, you know.”

Daughter: “You want to know why I never wear a coat?”

Me:  “I always thought it was because you couldn’t lose them that way.”

Daughter: “No, it’s because I can’t stand the way the way they sound when the sleeves rub against your body.  That sound makes me absolutely crazy. I can hear it all over my body and I can’t stand it.” ID-10049346

That was a bombshell to me. Her twin brother has autism and another son has cerebral palsy.  I was well aware of sensory processing issues and the effects they can have.  I even knew that my daughter’s clothing issues as a child had been related to sensory processing difficulties.  But it had never occurred to me to think about sensory answers to some of the other “crazy” things she did.  But if I had known the sound was driving her disinterest in coats, we could easily have looked for specific types of coats and probably found something that worked for her.  I’m a firm believer in rooting out the reasons behind odd behavior, because I have found that once you find it, you can usually work with it.

As for the family on the ground in the parking lot earlier, I really wish I could have gone up to one of the parents and told them about my daughter’s revelation.  Simply changing the type of coat they buy their daughter might solve the problem.  But I know from experience that when a parent is in the middle of working hard to keep their cool and their patience in the presence of a screaming child is not the time to offer suggestions, even perfect suggestions.  Because parents can get sensory overload, too.  I hope these parents read the internet.

My Left Hand

left handMy left hand is not very good at doing most of the things my right hand can do.  It doesn’t move as fast and it’s less coordinated, which leads to problems like poking my mouth with the fork if I try to eat with my left hand.  I can write with my left hand, but it would take a cryptologist to read it.  I can type with it, of course, but if I go too fast the letters on the right side of the keyboard overtake the letters on the left and typos pile up.  Even shaking my hands when I do the hokey pokey requires accepting that they will not shake in tandem, rather, the left will put up a good show but the right will get all the shaking glory.

In other words, my left hand can do the same things my right hand can do, but it really should leave the right to do the things it excels at and the left should stick to the things it does well – like hold the baby safely in my arms while my right manipulates the bottle.  Like stabilizing the tape dispenser while the right hand deftly tears a piece off.  Like holding the glass still while the right hand pours the milk.  You get the idea.

Why do I bring this up, you may ask?  Because I’ve seen a lot of people who are not attorneys try to write their own wills, their own trusts, and take care of their affairs on their own.  The problem is, these folks are doing the thing they are good at, which is deciding how they want to distribute their things, who they want to handle their affairs for them, and what kind of provisions they want to leave their family, but then going farther and trying to do the things they are not good at, which is knowing how to make sure what they want to happen actually happens.

You are the best person to decide how you want to handle your affairs. But an attorney is the best person to make sure you consider all the right circumstances and to make sure that all the right legal documents are created to ensure that what you want is what actually happens.

Don’t try to make your left hand do things it doesn’t do very well.  You might wind up poking your family in the eye with a poorly put together estate plan.


Would you like fries with that?

hawk in flightHere’s a question too few people ever answer:  After you die, who do you want to decide what kind of funeral you have and what happens to your remains?

Probably the most common answer is “What do I care, I’ll be dead?”

Some people clearly do care.  Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, requested his body be cremated and shot into space.  (His ashes were carried into space by a Spanish rocket in 1997).  Napoleon Bonaparte wanted his head shaved and the hair given out to his friends. Another gentleman directed that his funeral procession grab a whopper at the Burger King drive-thru on the way to the cemetary, to be buried with him. It’s unclear if he wanted fries, too.

Aside from doing unusual things, there’s a very important reason you should think about this question and come up with an actual answer.  Families that have twists and turns are the most vulnerable to black comedy movie worthy battles upon the death of an elderly member.  When there are children from a previous, or multiple, marriages, and a final spouse who is unrelated to some or any of the children, epic power struggles can emerge over, well, over anything really.

The struggle is real.  Grown children frequently feel they have more right to choose the final resting place for a mother or father than a spouse they may not know well or may actively dislike.  But in the eyes of the law, the spouse nearly always has the full authority to make all final decisions – that is, unless the deceased has properly spoken otherwise before his or her death.

While you, as the deceased, won’t have to deal with any fallout,  do you really want to create a situation where your loved ones spend time and money and psychic energy on whether you have a white casket or get cremated and dispersed in a firework instead of moving on with their life and treasuring happy memories of their time with you?

Do you really want your children to think you cared more about a new spouse than you did about them?

The solution is easy – make your wishes known in a legally enforceable way before you die.  You can either lay out all the details of your funeral and disposition of your body, or you can simply make clear which person in your life should be given authority to make all the decisions.  It’s up to you.  Doing nothing risks creating a family rift that could have been avoided and may never heal, and that’s not a pretty legacy to leave.

Celebrate freedom and human rights

liberty-bellOn this day in 1791, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, became the law of the land.  In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a proclamation designating December 15 “as a day of mobilization for freedom and for human rights, a day of remembrance of the democratic and peaceful action by which these rights were gained, a day of reassessment of their present meaning and their living worth.”



Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III

No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Amendment VII

In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

Your Community of Caregivers can provide extra eyes

circle of handsKey One of the Four Key Special Needs Planning System is to create a community of caregivers. You’ll probably need a guardian and a trustee, but other people can be involved in less formal ways.

One way to use people who are interested in your child is to use them as extra eyes to watch out for problems.  If your child is frequently alone with a caregiver, or lives in a group home, ask people to visit at random times.  This not only gives your child visitors, but it gives you an opportunity to check in on how your child is being cared for and helps encourage caregivers to pay closer attention to your child.


I Preach This Stuff Because I Live It Myself and It Matters

But It Was More Personal Than I Thought

I get asked sometimes why I do this kind of law, and my answer always involves the fact that I have special needs kids of my own, and I know how important the things I do are to the quality of life for the kids and the family. But my passion comes from a deeper place.

When my step-daughter turned 18 last fall, I gave her a perfect birthday present.  Not another iTunes card, although she would surely have called that the second most perfect birthday present possible (after the first best, a car, which just is not happening in this lifetime).

What I gave her was a folder full of legal documents – a power of attorney, medical power of attorney, HIPAA Release, and a few others.  I told her “now that you’re an adult, these are some of the most important things you will do for yourself and your loved ones. “   She was skeptical, but finally got around to filling them out and properly completing them.  She even gave me copies to keep safe for her (I’ll admit I planted that idea in her mind).

After that I got to thinking about how many new adults don’t have these documents and don’t even know they exist, let alone why they need them.

CalculatorAs a result, I recently created  the Young Adult Kit, a do it yourself guide that provides templates and step by step instruction for young adults to make sure that parents or others can help take care of their life in an emergency.  I am passionate about getting the word out to parents of these young adults that they need to educate their kids on how important this is.

A few short days after I first started advertising and selling this kit, I found myself extremely grateful to myself for getting my daughter to do this stuff.

Because that week, we became the unlikely event that I preach about.  My daughter, who has struggled with mental health issues all her life, found herself on a mandatory hold in a psychiatric hospital Sunday morning.  To make matters worse, the timing was such that her high school graduation and University enrollments were in limbo. A contract and substantial deposit for housing had been sent in the day before her event.  The psychiatric hospital has strict contact and visitation rules, so without her consent none of us could communicate with her.  And she was very angry when she was taken there, so it’s no surprise we did not hear from her.

The contract with the University is hers, but the money was her mother’s.  My daughter could cancel the contract without penalty by the following day, but no one could get in touch with her. There was a possibility that she would be deemed incompetent for a time to care for herself, but with four parents it’s unclear whether the doctors would be willing to choose any of us to stand in her stead.  And problems with the nightmare that is health insurance coverage in cases of mental health treatment could only be handled by my daughter because of privacy laws.

The family crisis increased tenfold.

Except, she had completed the documents I gave her on her birthday.  We had her own grant of permission to go in and take care of her university withdrawal and other necessary business, which prevented the needless loss of money and preserved her ability to re-enroll when she was ready.  We also had her grant of permission, made in a calmer time, to talk with medical staff and insurance company personnel to make sure that she received all the coverage that she so desperately needed.

When her mother called me after her hospital admission, desperate to figure out a way to deal with all of these things, I was able to tell her – it’s covered.  You don’t need to worry about that part. Take that off your plate, your daughter did you a huge favor by preparing for events like this in advance.

While there was still plenty to worry about, it was far more manageable because of the very simple steps she had taken months before.

You may never need these things.  But if you do, you will be so grateful that you have them.

Give a kit to all the young adults in your life.  Send this article to a friend.  Help spread the word about this very important part of being an adult.   The Young Adult Kit for Texas Residents