While my husband and I are about to get knee deep in coordinating plans with our extended families (yes, both sides of them), we’re reminded how challenging it can be to navigate something so simple as planning for one single holiday. This is why as estate planning attorneys, we tell people, if you think coordinating a holiday is tough, imagine sorting out someone’s entire life if something happens to them and there are no plans in place. You’re really going to spend a lot of time with your extended family then!
The same questions you are asking about the Thanksgiving plan, are the same questions you should be asking about your family estate plan. It’s one thing when a turkey doesn’t turn out, but a whole other ball game when you’re dealing with a family crisis that can last years because someone didn’t formalize their wishes.
Here are five important questions to ask, beyond the Thanksgiving planning:
1. Who is Hosting?
Every Thanksgiving plan begins with determining who will be hosting. Imagine if Thanksgiving Day came and no one decided that. How would you know where to go? Would you feel confused or stress? Would you secretly feel happy that you might get to stay home in your sweats?
This also happens when you fail to set up your family estate plan—your family is left scrambling because no one was designated to “host” or oversee everything. Even if someone wants to step up and take charge, they can’t talk to banks or doctors or access money without proper authorization. And it can take months to get in front of a judge to be legally appointed to help.
Make sure you know who’s hosting Thanksgiving, but more importantly, who will be “hosting” when a life changing event happens. From deciding who your trustee will be to handle the money, or who the health care agent will be to handle medical decisions, it’s important to nominate these people in advance so everything will go smoothly.
2. Who Will Be There?
Everyone usually asks who will be coming to the Thanksgiving party. Is it just family, or are you including any friends? Is there anyone you don’t want to include even though you’re related? Do boyfriends make the cut or do they have to put a ring on your finger first before they get to sit at the Thanksgiving table and be asked awkward questions.
These are the same questions you must ask when setting up an estate plan and deciding who will be included in your estate plan. If you pass away without specifying who will inherit from you, the only people coming to the “party” will be your legal next of kin—even the ones you don’t like. Or worse, there may be people you would have wanted to include—like a beloved step relative or life partner—who will get left out because the default laws don’t include them. Make sure you get the final say on who should be included when you’re passing down your assets and treasures.
3. What Will We Have?
We know with Thanksgiving that we can usually expect a major production with all the standard dishes. At my house, it’s an amazing turkey my husband makes in some contraption on the deck, the homemade rolls he makes from scratch that are like oversized dough bombs, and all the incredible side dishes our family members bring that take stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes, and corn to a whole new level. And let’s not forget that store-bought pumpkin pie my brother-in-law gets for free from his boss every year.
Just like your family wants to know what they will be having for the Thanksgiving meal, they also want to know what they will have if something happens to you. Who will get the family home, who will get the bank accounts, who will get the retirement account, who will get the family business—so many important things to formalize beforehand that otherwise must be settled in court.
4. How Long Will the Party Last?
Usually this is what the in-laws ask, but we all want to know how long the Thanksgiving celebrations will last so we can plan accordingly. Do we need to take time off work to travel there? Are we doing anything beforehand? Will the dinner take a long time? Will we fall asleep in a food coma and not wake up until Monday?
Just like we ask how long the Thanksgiving party will last, we need to find out how long it will last for dealing with someone’s estate! If you set up a proper estate plan before you pass away, it usually is a fairly quick process to sort everything out. If you don’t set things up in advance, your loved ones will have to go through court, and that can last 18-24 months! Make sure you know in advance how long it will take to deal with everything and try to mitigate that time as best as possible.
5. How Much Will This Cost?
If you’re throwing the Thanksgiving Party, you’ll probably ask yourself at some point how much time, money, and energy this party is costing you. If nothing else, it will probably cross your mind when you’re deciding how much to spend on beverages or holding up the paper turkey decoration from CVS and wondering if it’s worth it.
The same is true for estate planning. You need to know the cost. Not just the financial cost, but also how much time and energy will be needed to deal with a family loss. Setting up a full comprehensive family estate plan usually costs between $4500-$6500 at most reputable Orange County law firms but going through probate in California can cost you tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. Know the cost beforehand so you can plan accordingly.
Now one last piece of advice. While these are very important questions to ask about your family estate plan, please do not actually ask them on Thanksgiving! Let your mom and dad eat in peace without someone bringing up their prospective deaths, or don’t bring up your own estate plan up with your spouse when you’re stuck in traffic on the way to his sister’s house. Instead, calendar a time to discuss your estate planning so you can relax and enjoy Thanksgiving knowing the important stuff will be addressed.
And you don’t have to navigate these issues yourself. Your Newport Beach family trust, elder law, and special needs estate planning attorneys at the Meier Law Firm are here to help you set up a family estate plan. No matter what stage in life you find yourself today, make sure you have an up to date will, trust, and estate plan in place to protect your loved ones and assets. Call Bonnie Johnson at 949-718-0420 to schedule a planning session to get started or visit meierfirm.com to learn more.