Not long ago I wrote about “Mario,” an exceptional handyman hired by attorney “Danny” to remove a concrete shuffleboard court in his back yard.
Through the project, Danny got to know Mario, and they became friends. He learned that Mario owned a house and inherited a considerable amount of money, but he did not have an estate plan. Also, Mario was afraid that if he died without a will or trust, his property might go to “the wrong family members.”
And that’s where today’s story begins. Danny tried for months to get Mario in to meet with an estate planning attorney. “Yeah, Yeah, I know, I should, but I have so many jobs to finish, I do not have time, but I will, I promise,” he would always say.
And then Mario had a heart attack.
‘The Lord Has Been Knocking on Your Door’
By chance, one afternoon Danny called Mario just to say hi and was saddened to hear, “I am at the heart hospital, and they are going to put a stent in one of my coronary arteries as I have a blockage.”
Danny replied, “God has been trying to get your attention, but that didn’t work. So, he upped the ante. Now I am making an appointment for you with that lawyer!”
“Yes, please do,” Mario replied, a bit embarrassed.
And I have a question for my readers: How many of you know someone just like Mario?
Underlying Anxiety about Death
I ran Mario’s situation by, Eureka, Calif., estate planning attorney Thomas Hjerpe and asked, “Why are so many people reluctant to attend to these important things? How can family and friends help them?”
“Dennis, usually the reason people put off seeing an estate planning attorney is because of an underlying anxiety about death, not wanting to face the issue. There are some cultures where it is simply taboo to talk of death, let alone preparing an estate plan, and all this leads to chaos when it occurs.”
Logistics also can be a factor, notes Bakersfield, Calif., estate attorney Patrick Jennison. Getting an estate in order can require preparing many different documents, including a Family (Living) Trust, Wills, Powers of Attorney, Advance Health Care Directives, Beneficiary Designations, Deeds and other asset and account transfer documents.
“For many, the thought and perceived effort is overwhelming,” Jennison said. “Often the cost is a factor, as a good estate planning attorney will generally charge over $3,500 to do the necessary work properly.”
But the stakes are high. If you don’t set up your estate plan, no one will be able to help you if you become incapacitated.
“People do not realize how stressful this is on family, who cannot advocate for your health issues or manage your finances without that being established before incapacity,” Hjerpe said.
Practical Steps to Take to Get the Process Going
What should you do if family members won’t get their estate plans in order? One key way is to seek out the help of the financial professionals the person already relies upon and trusts. Ask them to provide referrals to capable and experienced lawyers who would be a good “fit” for the person in need of an estate plan.
“His or her suggestion and referral carries significant weight," Jennison says. “Work with that professional to promote the older family member, often a parent, to nudge the process forward. Meet with the parent client and the estate planning attorney to help the wary client feel more comfortable.
“A good estate planning attorney can slowly put the new client at ease with a friendly conversation about family and values, setting the groundwork for a productive and enjoyable process for the client, and an estate plan which fits the specific needs and desires of that client. This can be a team effort with the professional adviser or advisers who the client knows and trusts, including involving the CPA or financial adviser in the initial meeting.
And what if they don’t have a trusted team already? You should be prepared to attend the initial meeting with the estate planning attorney to make the transition into the estate planning world smoother. A willingness to share your own estate planning experiences could help, too. It’s all about treading lightly, Jennison says.
"A heavy-handed approach is never wise, since it is akin to forcing a child to eat food, a process which is seldom positive, and among other results could make the child gag. We want the client to be a willing, actively engaged participant in the process,” he says. “The gentle, encouraging, calm approach to the reticent person in need of an estate plan can be pursued with a consistent, firm prompting from trusted family and professionals.”
Hjerpe recommends framing the issue in a practical way that brings it all home to your loved one. “If you wait too long, you can’t get it done. Just think of the hassle that you are heaping on the people who love you.”
Divorce + Old Estate Documents = Disaster
One final note: Even if you have an estate plan in place, how up to date is it? Many problems arise out of divorce and remarriage. I can’t tell you how often we face a situation like a second wife who comes to our office, sits down and falls apart, in tears explaining that she discovered that her terminally ill husband is in a coma, never changed insurance beneficiary forms and now the policy will be paid to the former wife. It is too late to do anything about it.
Hjerpe has seen similar things where outdated documents are a ticking time bomb that can go off years after a divorce.
“It is so common to find that, years ago when everything was wonderful, a power of attorney or health care directive was given to the brother of an ex-spouse. Decades later, we find that the people who at one time loved “Bill” now hate him, and the new woman in his life is barred by HIPPA from receiving any information about his health. These issues are pure torture for family already often under extreme pressure.”
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."