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    Category Archives: Estate Law

    Robin Williams’ Family Fight Over Personal Property Not So Funny

    Robin Williams’ wife Susan has gone to court over personal items she says were taken from the couple’s Tiburon, California, home without her permission. Williams’ children say their father set up a trust that bequeathed the items to them and that his wife of three years is acting against his wishes. Could this have been avoided?  grieving family

    According to a recent article at the Huffington Post, there is a court fight brewing in San Francisco over the disposition of some personal property from the estate of comedian/actor Robin Williams, who committed suicide last year. His wife of three years claims his three children from prior marriages took certain items from the Tiburon residence where she lived with Williams.

    According to the children, these items are part of the inventory of personal property conveyed by certain trusts established for their benefit. Williams’ trust granted his children his memorabilia and awards in the entertainment industry as well as some other specific personal items, according to court documents.

    His widow, Susan Williams, claims that since they lived together in their own house in Tiburon, and there was a separate residence in Napa, it stands to reason he wanted the children to receive items from the Napa residence and she is to receive the property from the Tiburon home.

    Attorneys for the two sides appeared to offer conflicting characterizations of the court case. Susan Williams’ attorney said she is just seeking a clarification from the court; the attorney for the children says she has accused them of stealing items belonging to her.

    The probate court in California will look first at both Williams’ will and the documents that established the trusts for the children. The court will seek to determine if those documents delineate who gets exactly what. If neither document contains either an inventory of each item of personal property with instructions as to who shall receive it or a broader instruction perhaps suggesting “all other property contained at the Tiburon residence or the Napa residence,” then the court will have to engage in a more difficult analysis to determine what Williams’ wishes were when he set up the trusts and executed his will.

    As this contest is occurring in San Francisco and the family lived in the state, California trust and estate law will control the legal issues to be resolved.

    The Robin Williams’ estate underscores the need to specify exactly which personal items you are giving to family members by trust or will so there is no ambiguity once you pass.  It’s this ambiguity that causes family in-fighting and costs excessive amounts of time, money and energy, even (and maybe even especially) when the estate is of small value.

    Especially in a blended family situation, like with Robin Williams family, it’s important to be exceedingly clear about whether children from a prior marriage should receive any money or other assets at the time of your death or if they should wait for all inheritance until the death of your spouse.

    This is one of the situations that is most likely to result in strife and complication after death, and it’s so straightforward and easy to deal with ahead of time.

    The best way to learn about protecting your family is to talk with your Newport Beach Estate Planning Attorneys at the Meier Law Firm about an Achieve Your Dreams Planning Session, where we can identify the best strategies for you to provide for and protect the financial security of your loved ones.

    Make a Contract With Your Teen Driver This Summer

    Before you know it summer will be here and that means more teen drivers on the road.  Statistics show teens have twice as many accidents during the summer as any other time of the year, and alcohol is often a contributing factor.  teen driver

    Researchers say teen drivers do not think about risk the same way adults do, leading them to take bigger chances when they’re behind the wheel – leading one teen safety advocate to say “there’s no such thing” as a safe teen driver.

    A study by insurance company State Farm and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that 75 percent of fatal accidents caused by teen drivers were because of three mistakes:

    • Driving too fast for road or weather conditions.
    • Not paying attention to the road and what may have been coming ahead or from the side.
    • Being distracted by something – or someone – inside or outside the vehicle.

    More than half of all fatal teen accidents are one-car crashes, and the main factor is excessive speed.  Driving too fast coupled with inexperienced teen drivers’ tendency to misjudge a curve or bump in the road results in thousands of fatal accidents every year.

    To make sure this kind of tragedy doesn’t befall your family, sit down with your teen and make a contract specifying they are not to drink or use a cell phone for talking or texting while driving.

    You may also want to send your teen to a safe driving school.  The American Automobile Association (AAA) is just one of several organizations that offer classes in safe driving for teens.

    Our focus is the well-being and care of your family, no matter what.  If you would like to have a talk about protecting your family through legal planning, call our office today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk. We normally charge $750 for a Family Wealth Planning Session, but because this planning is so important, I’ve made space for the next two people who mention this article to have a complete planning session at no charge. Call today and mention this article.

    No One Feeling Good About Continuing Battle Over James Brown Estate

    James Brown was known for his signature song, “I Feel Good,” but no one is feeling good about the battle that is still being waged over his estate almost a decade after his death in 2006.  meier family 1

    The majority of Brown’s estate – estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars – was distributed via his will to the I Feel Good Trust to provide scholarships to underprivileged children in South Carolina and Georgia. None of those estate proceeds have been distributed to date, due to ongoing litigation between Brown’s fourth wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, his seven children and the trust.

    It is hard to imagine a bigger legal mess than the one created by Brown’s death. He has seven children and during the estate battle several more people stepped forward claiming they were Brown’s children as well. The legality of his marriage to Hynie has been called into question. Two sets of trustees have already been removed from the case.

    The South Carolina Attorney General brokered a deal in 2009 to split the estate’s assets, with half going to the trust, a quarter to Hynie and a quarter to be split among his children. That deal was dissolved by a South Carolina Supreme Court decision last year that found the state had overreached its authority in the matter and disregarded Brown’s final wishes.

    The latest twist is a decision in mid-January 2015 by a South Carolina judge granting a journalist’s Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to emails that include appraisals of Brown’s assets and discussions about Hynie’s diary as well as how much the state should pay a local law firm involved in the fight over the estate.

    Meanwhile, the estate continues to earn millions from Brown’s recordings, and has paid millions to creditors, lawyers and other debtors. However, not one dollar has been given to the scholarship program Brown envisioned.

    While a challenge to Brown’s will may not have been preventable considering the number of relatives he left behind, titling a majority of his assets to the trust before his death may have stemmed the tide of ongoing litigation and provided the funds for the education of children he wanted to help. And since a trust is private, unlike a will, it could have prevented the public scrutiny over his affairs.

    This is a common error made by estate planning lawyers, even those hired by wealthy people like James Brown.  Unfortunately, whether you have significant financial wealth or not, the impact is the same on your family — if your assets are not titled properly in a trust at the time of your death, your family will end up in Court. It’s a guarantee.  Let us help your family stay out of Court.

    If you would like to have a talk about how an estate plan can help protect your family, call your Newport Beach Estate Planning Attorneys today at the Meier Law Firm to schedule an Achieve Your Dreams Planning Session.  We can not only guide you through the creation of your own plan, we can also assist you with that all-important family discussion so your wishes are respected.

    10 Tips to Ensure Family Harmony Over Your Estate Plan

    When your children were small, you no doubt suffered the challenge of keeping peace in the family.  We see this same scenario play out time after time among adult siblings when a messy estate causes family rifts. Here are 10 tips to help prevent your children from fighting over your estate: meier family

    1. Talk to children about your estate plan. It may be a difficult discussion to have, but you need to have it. If you find it too difficult, enlist the help of your estate planning attorney to go over the details of your estate plan with your children and answer their questions.
    2. Write your children a letter. If you can’t face a face-to-face discussion, put it in writing with as much detail as you are comfortable providing to your children. You can frame the discussion in general terms and ask for their input.
    3. Email your children your estate plan summary. Your estate planning attorney will usually provide you with a summary of your estate plan that doesn’t disclose actual dollar amounts. Ask your estate planning attorney to copy your children on an email with the summary and ask for their input.
    4. For complex estates, consider a mediator. If you have a complicated estate that may include valuable collections or a family business, consider engaging the services of a professional mediator who can meet with you and your children separately to identify any potential issues and then meet with you together to iron out those issues.
    5. Use equal treatment. If possible, leave your children an equal inheritance outright; most family fights result from children being treated unequally.
    6. If you establish a trust for children, name each child as a co-trustee of their own trust at a certain age. Choose a reasonable age for when you feel a child will be able to participate in managing their own trust so they can learn about handling an inheritance with the help of the main trustee.
    7. Consider staggered distributions from a trust. To help a child learn how to manage a substantial inheritance, estate planning experts often advise staggering distributions over a period of time (i.e., age 25, 30, etc.).
    8. Provide children with option to remove or replace main trustee. Similar to arranged marriages, you never know if children and trustees will make a go of the relationship. Give children limited power to remove and replace a trustee with another qualified trustee.
    9. Allow children to name their own co-trustee. If your children are competent adults, give them the power to name the independent co-trustee of their trust.
    10. Include mediation instructions in your estate plan. Your estate planning attorney can add mediation language so that if a dispute arises, your children will not be tied up in emotionally and financially draining litigation.

    The best way to ensure your estate plan doesn’t lead to a family feud is to meet with your Newport Beach Estate Planning Attorneys at the Meier Law firm for an Achieve Your Dreams Planning Session, where we can identify the best strategies for you to provide for and protect the financial security of your loved ones.

    Special Needs Trust: Protection for Those Who Need It the Most

    Families of those with disabilities – physical or mental – are typically concerned with the best way to fund the long-term financial and personal needs of their special needs loved one in a way that will secure a fulfilling life for them. The best vehicle to accomplish this goal is known as a Special Needs Trust (SNT). mother daughters

    A SNT can be customized to the special circumstances of each family facing the need to secure the future of a disabled family member, while keeping their access to government benefits like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) intact.

    In fact, the best planned SNT will maximize the use of both private and governmental resources to benefit your disabled loved one.  Families can use their personal assets to provide for qualify of life enhancements like education, training, vacations, hobbies or pets as a secondary source of support to supplement government benefits to meet the basic needs of a disabled family member.

    Types of Special Needs Trusts

    The most prevalent type of SNT is the Supplemental Care SNT, which are designed to serve as a supplemental resource after government benefits have been exhausted. The assets placed into a SNT are not considered “available resources” for purposes of qualifying for government benefits.

    A General Support SNT is a trust that is set up to serve as the primary source of benefits, and will disqualify the beneficiary from receiving needs-based government benefits.

    Determining which type of SNT is best for a special needs beneficiary depends on whether the assets placed in the trust will last for the lifetime of the beneficiary.  If so, a General Support SNT could be appropriate. If not, a Supplemental Care SNT is the best choice since it allows the beneficiary to receive government benefits.

    Establishing a SNT

    To establish a SNT, the beneficiary must be disabled according to the guidelines established by the Social Security Act – i.e., unable to support themselves due to a disability – and also be under the age of 65 when the SNT is established.

    If the disabled person is over 65, a “pooled” SNT in which numerous disabled parties participate, is an option. Several states as well as charitable organizations make pooled SNTs available for this purpose.

    A trustee must be named for the SNT, and not all jurisdictions allow for family members to serve as trustees. In this case, a professional trustee such as a trust company or bank may be used to perform the fiduciary duties of the SNT.

    We can help you and your family plan for the future financial security of a special needs family member. Call your Newport Beach Estate Planning Attorneys at the Meier Law Firm today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk about an Achiever Your Dreams Planning Session, where we can identify the best strategies for you and your family to ensure your legacy of love and financial security.

    The “Talk” You Need to Have With Your Parents ASAP

    lauraanddadI noticed at our annual neighborhood football game this year that the conversations have changed. Yes we still talked about the kids, the husbands, the ex-husbands, and all the new places we need botox, but this year we started talking about new things I thought were still years away. One friend was talking about having to spend the upcoming holiday at her parents’ new condo because they had recently downsized from the family home. Another friend was talking about how the upcoming holiday would be tough because it would be the first one without her dad, who had unexpectedly passed away earlier this year.

    Now that we are getting older, life is changing, not just for us, but for our parents too. You may be wondering just how prepared your parents are for these life changes, and how that impacts you. It’s not comforting thinking you’ll be the one dealing with lawyers, courtrooms, and taxes if your parents pass on without having their affairs in order. But how do you bring up the subject to your parents without making it awkward, or mistakenly appear as though you’re just waiting to get your inheritance?

    It’s time to have “the talk” with your parents. Here are 5 easy ways to approach your parents’ medical, financial, and estate planning with them without making it as awkward as they did when they had that “other talk” with you many years ago:

    1. Change the topic. Who wants to talk about their own death?  No thanks. Instead of asking your parents about their will or trust, instead ask them about their emergency plan and how you can help. Because emergency planning encompasses so much more than who gets moms ring when she goes, parents are more willing to go there, and estate planning will naturally play into the discussion. (Warning: Be prepared to see your dad’s water storage or indulge him when he shows you how to live off powdered mix for three days.)
    2. Try sharing, not asking. We’re all adults now, and just because your parents are older does not make their estate planning any more urgent than your own. Every adult needs basic planning such as a will and trust, especially if you have little kids or have purchased a home. It is best to get your own house is in order before you go asking your parents about theirs. Plus, by having your own family emergency and estate planning done, you can share your experience with them rather than ask questions about a topic you have only read or heard about.
    3. Don’t pry. Ask practical questions rather than personal questions and you’ll find your parents will be more willing to talk, and you’ll still be adequately prepared to respond to a family crises. While it is your business to know who you need to contact in an emergency, such as your parents medical decision makers or estate planning lawyer, it is less your business to know who dad is leaving his office furniture to or which sibling he chose to be in charge of distributing the family money. Respect your parents’ privacy.
    4. Request a family meeting. Most parents with adult children wish to avoid a family meeting because they’re afraid it will open up a huge can of worms or tear the family apart. They fear a family rift or blow up will occur if family members become too emotional, fearful, paranoid, or unforgiving. Having a structured family meeting facilitated by an objective third party (like a family trust attorney) can actually keep discussions on track and allow family to resolve their differences rather than wait to air their grievances in a courtroom.
    5. Give it a rest. It’s frustrating when parents refuse to get their medical, financial and estate planning in place, especially when you know you’ll likely be the one who has to hire the lawyers, go to court, deal with siblings, and sell the family home when they go. If you have tried encouraging your parents to make their planning a priority and are met with procrastination or resistance, just let it go (at least for a good while). It’s better to keep the peace then get angry with them. Chances are they have had to let a few things go with you so look at it as returning the favor.

    For more great tips on how to protect your family members and get your medical, financial, and estate plan in order, contact your Newport Beach family estate planning firm.

    Laura K. Meier, Esq. is a family trust attorney and mother of four young children. She is the author of Good Parents Worry, Great Parents Plan. Laura and her husband, Joshua D. Meier, Esq. run a business and estate planning law firm together in Newport Beach, CA.

    5 Reasons Why You Need to Review Your Estate Plan

    Creating an estate plan to protect your financial future and that of your family is just the first step in the estate planning process. Once those documents are executed, you will still need to review your plan annually to ensure it continues to reflect your needs and achieve your goals. Here are 5 reasons that can trigger the need to review your existing estate plan:

    mother daughter

    Family changes. Marriage, divorce, birth and death are four family changes that should prompt an estate plan review. If one of your beneficiaries dies, you will need to remove them from your estate plan. A new child or grandchild means adding beneficiaries. If your daughter gets a divorce, you will likely want to remove her ex from your estate plan but keep their children in. These circumstances can also trigger changes to those people designated as guardians, executors or health care agents.

    Health changes. The state of your own health may dictate changes to your estate plan, especially when it comes to long-term care. You may want to help a family member who has no other resources for long-term care, or if you yourself suddenly need long-term care, you may need to provide a trustee with new instructions on the kind of care you want – i.e., staying at home with in-home help or paying to live in a senior living facility.

    Work changes. You may suddenly want – or need – to retire, which could necessitate withdrawing from your IRA funds to support yourself instead of contributing more. If you have a family business, you may want to sell it or convert a sole proprietorship into an LLC or corporation, which could mean a significant change for your estate plan.

    Market changes. If the total value of your estate has fluctuated by more or less than 20 percent, this should prompt an estate plan review. A significant gain could provide you with assets you may want to gift to children or grandchildren to reduce or remove estate taxes.

    Law changes. Tax law changes all the time, so reviewing your plan at least once a year is the best way to either take advantage of any new changes that could benefit you, or revise your plan so these changes do not adversely impact your estate.

    To review an existing estate plan or create one for yourself and your family, call your Newport Beach Estate Planning Attorneys at the Meier Law Firm today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk about an Achieve Your Dreams Planning Session, where we can identify the best strategies for you and your family to ensure your legacy of love and financial security.

    5 Things We Should Learn From Our Parents About Retirement

    When we talk about retirement, most of us are still thinking about our parents’ retirement and how they did – or did not – plan properly for it.  It’s no big stretch to think that our retirement will differ significantly from that of our parents, but there are still lessons to be learned from them in preparing:retirement

    1.  Seek out a pension plan.  If you are considering a career change or job move, look for companies that offer traditional pension plans.  Having a pension can make an incredible difference in retirement security.

    2.  If you don’t have a pension plan, compensate.  Start investing now in a 401(k), an IRA or other defined contribution plan early and keep investing in it throughout your working life.  Figure out what you could have made if you had a pension plan, and contribute that amount to your own plan.

    3.  Save for a long life.  None of us lives forever, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t save as if you would live forever.  Running out of money in your 80s or 90s should you live that long is a frightening prospect; medical advances are extending life spans and you need to save for a long life.

    4.  Plan for health care expenses.  It is estimated that most Americans will spend at least $240,000 on health care in retirement, and you will either need to save that amount or have a health coverage plan in place to cover your retirement medical costs.

    5.  Start early and stay the course.  As soon as you start working, aim to save at least 10 percent of your income every year – 15 percent is even better if doable.  And keep saving throughout your working years.  As your salary increases, try to set aside even more so the comfortable retirement you envision can become a reality.

    If you’d like to learn more about retirement planning strategies for your family, call our office today at 949.718.0420 to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk about an Achieve Your Dreams Planning Session.

    The Last Important Gift to Give Your Family

    As hard as it is for all of us to “plan” for our deaths, doing so is one of the best things you can do for your family.  Adding to their grief and pain by giving them no clue as to where to find your personal and business paperwork should not be a memory you leave behind.Family washing dog

    Gather the following information in a folder and let your family know where they can find it in case you die unexpectedly or have a health crisis:

    Advisors – Provide the name and contact information of any financial advisors, including attorneys, estate planners, CPAs, accountants, etc.

    Bank Accounts and Safety Deposit Boxes  – Bank name and account numbers for each bank where you have an account.  Include PIN numbers for online banking.  If you have a personal banker, include his or her name as well, with contact information.  If you have a safety deposit box, record the name of the bank, the box number as well as contents of the box and location of the key.

    Investment And Retirement Accounts – For investment accounts, provide the name of the brokerage, your personal broker, the location of your statement file, account and PIN numbers.  For retirement accounts, provide contact information for plan administrators as well as account and PIN numbers.

    Insurance  – For all your policies – health, home, car, life, long-term care – provide the name and contact information for the agents as well as account numbers.

    Health care – For your health care providers, give contact information for physicians, Medicare information and any other gap coverage you may have.

    House – If you still have a mortgage on your home, provide information on your lender and payment due dates.  Also provide the location of deeds and property titles.  Include contact information for any home service providers – cleaning help, lawn care, etc.

    Credit Cards – Make a photocopy of both sides of each credit card and provide balance and payment information.

    Vehicles – Provide information on where titles and registration information are kept. Make a photocopy of your driver’s license as well.

    Personal – Include a list of your friends and neighbors with email and phone contact information as well as all your email account log-ins and passwords.

    This last bit of planning on your part will go a long way toward helping your family cope in the immediate aftermath of your death or incapacitation.

    One of the main goals of our law practice is to help families like yours plan for the safe, successful transfer of your wealth to the next generation.  Call your Newport Beach estate planning attorneys today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk about an Achieve Your Dreams Planning Session, where we can identify the best strategies for you and your family to ensure your legacy of love and financial security.

    Congratulations! It’s an Estate Plan! Protecting Your Newborn From Birth

    Congratulations! It’s an Estate Plan!  Protecting Your Newborn From Birth

    In the process of becoming new parents, many couples become experts at planning – scheduling the birthing classes, planning the new nursery, even picking out a preschool. There is so much to think about before you welcome your new

    Unfortunately, one of the most important things you can do to protect your child is often overlooked:  an estate plan.  Here are five important considerations you need to discuss with your Personal Family Lawyer® when setting up an estate plan once your new baby is born:

    Guardians and trustees.  Parents who delay choosing a guardian for their children usually do so because they cannot agree on that “perfect” choice.  Get comfortable with the fact that there is no perfect choice – and if you don’t choose, a court will choose for you.  You can always amend your choice if you change your mind.  When choosing a guardian or trustee, you need to think about choosing someone who shares your beliefs and who will naturally be a part of your child’s life.  And you need to make sure whomever you choose is willing to take on the responsibility of raising your child if you are unable to do so.

    As your neighborhood Personal Family Lawyer, I offer a unique process for families with young children at home. Contact me to discuss how a Kids Protection Plan® can ensure your children are always cared for by people you know, love and trust if anything at all happens to you.

    Education.  The cost of college is already sky-high; can you imagine what it will be like in another 18 years?  You probably want to start saving right away, either through a 529 plan or an educational trust so you can realize some tax benefits while you save.

    Passing on your assets.  Assets cannot pass directly to children under the age of 18, so you will need to think about setting up a trust and naming a trustee to manage the assets you would leave your children.  You also need to examine your beneficiary forms for retirement accounts and insurance policies to be sure your new child is included as a beneficiary.  Even if you name them in a will, a beneficiary form for these accounts will determine who inherits.

    Avoiding probate.  Talk to your attorney about setting up a living trust so your heirs can avoid probate and assets can pass directly to them.

    Asset protection.  If you have an estate of more than $10.5 million, you will want to discuss asset protection strategies that will help you minimize taxes and protect assets for your heirs.

    Call our office today at 949.718.0420 to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk about an Achieve Your Dreams Planning Session, where we can identify the best strategies for you and your family to ensure your legacy of love and financial security.

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