by Attorney Kevin Von Tungeln
The worst part of being an estate planning attorney is telling those in need that it is too late to plan an estate. Unfortunately, almost every one of these cases could have been prevented with just a little bit of planning. We recently experienced such a case.
A woman called to discuss her very ill stepfather. Her stepfather was completely incapacitated and was not expected to live much longer. While not her natural father, her stepfather had raised her since she was five and they were as close as any biological family. He also had a biological son who had been estranged from the family for decades due to his parents' divorce. When our client's mother died a few years ago, she willingly stepped into the role of caretaker for her stepfather, buying him groceries, ensuring he took his medications, and caring for him however he needed - just as she would for her biological parent.
Prior to being hospitalized, however, her stepfather had prepared no estate planning documents and no HIPAA authorization or Advanced Health care Directive. For this reason, his medical team would not share any information with our client. This made it very hard for her to help her stepfather at this critical time.
She wanted to know about options that would allow her to ensure her stepfather's treatment aligned with his wishes and values. Further, she was concerned about what might happen to his assets should he die.
Ever since childhood, our client's stepfather had promised she would inherit his assets. None of this existed in writing, however, and our client was worried that upon his passing, her stepfather's estranged son would reappear and try to get everything. She wanted to know what could be done to avoid this.
Unfortunately for our client, it was simply too late. In his current condition, her stepfather was unable to sign an advance healthcare directive or a will (much less a trust) and without these documents, she was a legal stranger to him under California law. With no trust or Will in place, the distribution of her stepfather's assets would be determined by California's laws governing intestate succession statutes and these dictate that his entire estate, including sentimental items, would pass to his estranged son, which was not what he would have wanted.
These are never the kinds of conversations an estate planning attorney wants to have with a family and they need not ever happen. Putting basic estate planning documents in place, including a Trust and advance directives, is a painless, expedient process and is worth doing right now. After all, the only thing worse than losing a loved one is losing their legacy in the process.
This is why we recommend our clients to be sure to come in regularly for reviews of their estate plan and for the general public to remember that procrastination is one of the most disastrous causes of unnecessary stress, headache, cost and chaos to families. Attend one of our upcoming seminars or contact our office at 661-945-5868. We have offices located in Lancaster, Santa Clarita/Valencia, and North Los Angeles (Koreatown).