Literal Gold Diggers

When I think of a gold digger, my mind conjures up two images: 1) an 1800’s scruffy old man panning for gold, and 2) The Housewives of Beverly Hills, Atlanta, or wherever.  In the old days, a gold digger was someone who ransacked the graveyards stealing gold from the deceased.  In my world of estates, I see a different kind of gold digger; one that you won’t know exists until a loved one dies or takes seriously ill.

We see estates literally ransacked, like a bunch of coyotes rummaged through the place.  Boxes that once sat neatly in the attic and closets are ripped open and left in a jumbled mess, opened with contents spilling out.  Closets are left with clothes not on hangers, but in a huge heap on the floor!  Kitchen cupboards are askew and I guarantee the silver is long gone.  It would appear they left no stone unturned.  Were they looking for gold, silver, or cold, hard cash?

What is this incessant need for people to take stuff and help themselves?

I call them Mr. Pilfer and Miss Pickpocket.  They come in, often under cover of the darkness, and things disappear, never to be found again.  Is it greed, the entitlement mentality, or just a lack of care and consideration for the memory of the loved one?

I have come to the conclusion, after talking with dozens of executors, that one of the problems is there are too many keys floating around.  One of the first things I recommend is changing the locks to protect the contents until they are inventoried and/or valuated.  Another thorn in the executor’s paw is that sometimes they will tell the family and extended members that “Uncle Joe was known for his cash stashes, guns, gold coins, etc.”

This just happened in the estate I was working in.  The executor, thinking he was being honest and open with everyone, told the family there was cash in the house.  You know what happened next?  Ransack city.

Sometimes, the executor won’t even know there are valuables or cash, but other family members suspect there is money in the estate.  It is the executor’s responsibility to protect what is in the estate!  No one should go in until all is established and ready to be divided according to the will (if there is one).  Hopefully, the executor is honest!

Moral of the story:  Loose talk makes valuables walk.

© 2012 Julie Hall

A Change in Your Health Can Mean a Change in Your Will

An estimated 50% of us have a will or trust!  This is not good news!

Most people have not yet comprehended (or accepted) that dying without a will is a very costly mistake that will negatively impact all you leave behind.  It’s not just about the hassles and frustrations your heirs will go through potentially for years, but the expenses involved.  Ultimately, the state you live in will make decisions regarding your estate that will not distribute it the way you would have chosen.  In a nutshell, get it done now and leave a legacy of respect, instead of resentment.

For those who do have a will, it is important to consider any changes in mental and physical health, as these could greatly impact the outcome of someone’s wishes.  For example, let’s say mom’s healthcare power of attorney states that dad makes all decisions for mom in the event she is incapacitated, vegetative state, etc.  Suddenly dad is exhibiting odd behavior and is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which is progressing rapidly.  Can he now make sound decisions for mom?  Or, mom may not think about these details and this is the time for the children to talk with her about it.

So many Boomer children don’t know how to talk with their parents about these delicate issues, so permit me to offer some very sound advice.  It has to be done; it has to be discussed, as painful as it is.  If left “under the carpet,” no answers will be available to you should they become infirm or die.  Get the answers now, and do so with love and compassion.

Here’s one example: “Mom, we were thinking about yours and dad’s situation.  Now that dad is showing a decline in health, new decisions have to be made and documented so your wishes are fulfilled the way you would like them to be.  Dad is no longer capable of understanding complex issues, and you will need to choose a new healthcare power of attorney, so we can ensure the correct decisions will be made.  Can you please give this some thought?  Can we make an appointment with your attorney to have this changed soon?

This one example really gets you thinking.  Anytime there is a significant change in your life or a parent’s life, consider discussing ith an elder law or estate planning attorney.  Being proactive isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it can head off gut-wrenching issues that will occur at some point, especially if you have elderly loved ones.  Making sound decisions in the midst of crisis is not the optimal time to think clearly.

Lead with love, and start communicating while you can!

© 2011 Julie Hall

“Are Co-Executors a Good Idea?”

Q:  I have two grown daughters who get along well, and treat me with great care and respect.  Now that my husband has passed away, I need to update my will.  I am considering both my daughters to be co-executors.  Is this a good idea or not, Julie?  What do you suggest?

A.  Have you ever noticed that there are those who are very good at making decisions and those who couldn’t make a decision if their life depended on it?  While these are two extreme examples, everyone is somewhere between those two extremes – a mixed bag of opinions, emotions, thoughts, feelings, theories, etc.  You never know what you’re going to get when you add different moods and personalities to the mix.

Even when you know someone very well, the tide can easily turn when one is grieving and handling an estate, which is a very stressful situation.  The slow and steady brother suddenly rears up and causes strife which you did not expect.  The quiet, reclusive sister becomes the chronic complainer to the point of estrangement.  Another sister is refusing to move out of the home, causing major financial problems for the family.  Finally, the long-lost baby brother no one has heard from in years surfaces, demanding his share.

One executor is difficult enough, for they can never make everyone happy and are always the target.  Having co-executors is not often recommended by legal professionals for these reasons:  differences of opinion, geographically remote from the location of the estate, one can easily cause trouble, the other can drag out the sale of the estate against the family’s wishes.  You name it and I’ve seen it!

I think many people choose co-executors because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  In the end after they leave this earth, the hurt, pain, and grief that their decision has caused can be unbearable.

Bottom line: Think long and hard before assigning co-executors.  It may be best to assign this role to someone who is completely objective, rather than either of your daughters.

© 2011 Julie Hall

6 Big Mistakes People Make with Personal Property

Personal property and heirlooms — we spend a lifetime accumulating them, inheriting them, caring for them, collecting them, and talking about them.  But we rarely know the values and we rarely make a plan for what happens to our personal property.

Here’s my list of the biggest mistakes.  Hopefully, you don’t see yourself in this list.

1.  Parents don’t share final wishes with their children.  They don’t share vital documents, especially the will/trust, or at least tell the children where they are located.

Children are then left to guess the parent’s wishes, which is a very bad thing.  Children live with guilt for the remainder of their lives, wondering if their “guess” was what mom and dad would have wanted.  What a heavy load to carry!

2.  Parents don’t make a plan for personal property.  They don’t create a master list, or ask what the heirs would like to have.  They definitely don’t gift any of their possessions while they are still alive.

3.  Parents know that death and infirmity will certainly come, but they do nothing to anticipate or minimize fighting after they are gone.

4.  Children have opposite opinions because the parents didn’t tell their wishes to the children.  This starts fights and feuds that can last for the remainder of their lives.

5.  Children are hasty with parents’ possessions.  Heirlooms with significant value can end up in a dumpster or yard sale.  They decline to hire a professional to ascertain what’s valuable before distribution and disposal.

6.  Chilren have a tendency to give away, throw away, or donate before they know the worth of those items.  Be leary of unscrupulous people who ask for a “memento” and go for the most valuable item, which you may or may not have valuated.

Did you see yourself in this list?  If so, now is the time to take action and resolve these issues.  As I’ve said before, you don’t want to become one of The Estate Lady’s sad stories!

© 2010 Julie Hall

How to Find the Best Executor for your Estate

If there is truly a job that no one wants, it has to be the Executor of an estate.  Being the executor requires great time and effort, and it is usually a thankless job.

Mom and Dad, if you are choosing an executor, here are some suggestions,  First, I recommend that you select an executor who is up to the challenge, not advanced in age, not a procrastinator, and someone who will have your best interests at heart.  Heirs or your children who will receive from the estate are not usually the best choice. 

Don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings when you make your choice.  This is your estate and it must be handled in a manner that is comfortable to you.  To do the job well, the executor must put your desires and wishes before anything else.

Help your executor out while you are still living.  Prepare your important papers, like your last will and testament, and make sure your executor knows where to find the papers.  Be sure to keep them updated every few years.

Besides your important legal papers, does your family know your last wishes?  Do they know how you wish to distribute your belongings?  Be sure that specific bequests are spelled out in your last will and testament.  If you want Susie to receive your china, and you want Frank to receive your books, create a master list of these items to store with your important papers. 

Better yet, why not “gift” your possessions while you are still alive?  You’ll have the pleasure of seeing the joy on your heirs’ faces when they receive that piece of jewelry or collectible they have always wanted.  You’ll also reap the benefit of saving your children from struggles and feuds after you pass away.

© 2010 Julie Hall

The Simple Process of Preparing a Will

I want to follow up last week’s true story about Carolyn with some simple information about why you need a will.  I know what you are thinking right now … “I’m young and in perfect health; why do I need to rush and prepare a will?”  No one is guaranteed the length of their days on earth; accidents and illness can come suddenly.  A will is necessary even if you feel you have nothing of value.  You probably have sentimental items that you wish to give to specific heirs.

Preparing a will is a fairly simple process that doesn’t have to be any more complicated or time-consuming than going out to lunch with a friend.

A last will and testament is a legal document that gives clear instructions about what to do with your property after your death and how death taxes, if any, are to be paid, along with final expenses that would include any debt and administrative costs.  It states who is to receive the property and in what amounts. 

A will may also be used to name a guardian for any minor children or to create a trust to handle an estate inheritance to protect spendthrift children or others.  Finally, and this is important in the case of your parents, a will can be used to name a personal representative or executor to handle property and affairs from the time of death until an estate is settled.

You do not have to hire an attorney to make out a will, though I highly recommend it.  The law is multifaceted, and all kinds of scenarios can erupt.  Depending on the complexity of the will, it will initially cost  a few hundred dollars to have an attorney explain your options and then draw up the document. 

But what Carolyn had written on notebook paper in her own handwriting could have served as a legal will if it were witnessed and notarized … and found.  When you consider the years and tears that your heirs and family will endure if you pass away without a  will, a few hundred dollars and a legal will becomes the most loving investment you can make in family harmony and peace.

© 2010 Julie Hall

Mom Refuses to Create a Will

Thanks to another reader for this excellent question.

Q:  My mother refuses to have a Last Will and Testament drawn up.  She doesn’t want to hear about the ramifications that would be present if she died without a will.  It hurts me to think she will not take care of this matter.  How can I get her to listen?

A:  You are certainly not alone in your concerns for your mother.  For each of us, facing our own mortality can never be a pleasant thing.  Yet preparing a will and other legal documents is perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give our loved ones.  When you prepare a will, you assure that things are done according to your wishes when you pass away.

I recommend that you contact an attorney or paralegal.  While I am not one, I can share with you many situations where I am brought into an estate where the individual died intestate (without a will).  What a complete nightmare!  I wouldn’t wish that horrible mess on anyone, let alone my loved ones.

The attorneys/state get deeply involved, creditors hassle the family, family members are in a constant state of unrest, and any money from the estate often goes right out the door, instead of going to loved ones.  It is grueling and time consuming, not to mention distressing and miserable!  When you don’t have a will, you doom your heirs to potentially years spent closing your estate.  Why would you knowingly do that?

We go to great lengths to preserve our heirlooms and other personal property.  Since we can’t take them with us when we pass away, doesn’t it make sense to make preparations for all that you worked hard for in your lifetime, and protect that with a will or trust and other legal paperwork?  It makes sense to me!

© 2010 Julie Hall