With estate planning, timing can be everything

Steve Gammill

A friend of mine who also happens to be a very good client — let’s call him Billy Planwell —  called the other day. He was upset and wanted a meeting. I cleared my morning — something I’m fairly used to doing for many of  my clients — and told him to come on in.

Billy began by telling me a story about his cousin, Todd. Billy had grown up with this man, but over the past 20 years had lost touch. A couple of nights ago, Billy received a telephone call from Todd.

Todd’s neighbor had been killed in a horrific traffic accident while he and his wife were running their traditional Saturday morning errands. They were just coming out of the grocery store parking lot when their car was T-boned by an over-filled dump truck. The husband was dead at the scene and his wife was still in a coma in the local hospital. Her recovery remained uncertain.

To add worse to terrible, the couple had three young children who had been left at home playing in their yard. The oldest is about 10 years old and his two younger siblings are 6 and almost 8. They were routinely left at home on these Saturday jaunts not because of questionable parenting. With these children, it was an appropriate activity. Besides, the neighbors were caring and aware. 

The couple had recently drafted a will, which was securely placed in a safe deposit box at the bank.

Todd told Billy the immediate problem was the kids. The parents had literally no preparations in place — as many would have to admit to as well.

The tragedy raised serious and somber questions among friends and neighbors. Most were feeling concern about their own families and were almost desperately seeking answers and solutions. Todd told his friends he would contact his cousin, Billy, who, he believed, had a knowledgeable estate planning attorney with a willingness to listen.

When this kind of tragedy occurs and children are left alone playing in the yard, how long will it take the police to come notify them? How do we deal with the stress and fright they will experience? Who will step up and take care of the children immediately? Who will be willing and able to help them cope during the next few days? What about getting them ready for school and then getting them there? Who will pick them up and take them home? And where is home? What about soccer practice? Is there any kind of guardianship document in place? Where is it? Will the document be effective if the parents are alive, but disabled?

These were just a few of the questions with which Todd and the other neighbors were wrestling. Let your imagination go and you’ll think of many horrific possibilities, most of which will be realistic.

Many believe estate planning concerns itself with the distribution of assets upon death. What we typically fail to recognize is that planning is about much more. It’s also about living with disabilities and caring for children or aging parents now left with no caregivers. It’s even about pets and sometimes livestock that can be completely forgotten during a crisis. 

I think we all know many young parents with children, parents in their 30s and 40s who’ve never stopped to think about this. They might have a will that names guardians to raise their children.

But do mom and dad have anything at all in place to cover this kind of immediate crisis? Usually the answer is no. And remember, a will doesn’t “speak” until a person has died. 

A will doesn’t have much impact when parents are living, but because of an accident or other cause are unable to make decisions any more, does it?

As younger people consider their lives, estate planning just doesn’t resonate as an immediate need. It is, in fact, an immediate need.

Estate planning shouldn’t be something that we “get around to” only after surviving middle age or after we have accumulated some wealth.