Often, people procrastinate with estate planning.
We think, "What's the worst that can happen?"
We think it will not really affect us, only what happens to our money after we've passed.
Unfortunately, that's not true. Of course, it will affect our money, causing delays, expenses, and potential infighting. However, the lack of planning can also affect us.
Perry Whatley, known by his friends as "Bit," was a refinery worker in Baytown, Texas.
Bit lived an ordinary life, living frugally in a modest home. Bit made a shrewd investment in Humble Oil, which became Exxon, and later Exxon Mobil. That small investment ended up worth millions.
However, like many of us, Bit did not have a good estate plan.
He had had a power of attorney, but had even revoked that. Bit, who was a widower, slowly declined in health and had a caretaker.
His niece, Jeannie Anderson, the daughter of his only brother, became concerned when the caretaker began to exert increasing control over her uncle, who she knew had various health issues.
When Bit married the caretaker, Dawn Johnson Whatley, Jeannie decided it was time to ask the probate court to step in to determine his capacity and appoint someone to manage his assets.
Bit was in the middle of a fight between his new wife and his niece. His new wife took Bit out of state and away from family in order to avoid an order of the probate court.
After more than two years, three-fourths of Bit's fortune had been spent on legal fees and court battles.
And then, he died, far from family.
This is not how most of us would want to spend our final days: Isolated from family, on the run from a court order, and in the middle of an exhausting, expensive legal battle.
How could Bit have avoided this problem?
He could have done estate planning which would have provided for potential incapacity.
First, Bit could have put his assets in a Revocable Living Trust. Such a trust would have allowed Bit to manage the assets when well, and would have allowed a successor trustee (selected by him up front) to manage the assets for him during his incapacity.
Powers of attorney would have complemented the trust. This would have avoided the costly and emotionally draining court battle.
Estate planning certainly helps ensure that your assets are distributed the way you want after your death.
However, more importantly, estate planning ensures that the people whom you trust are in place with the power to manage things when you are no longer able to do so for yourself.
An attorney who focuses practice on estate planning can help you put things in order so that you can rest easy knowing that Bit's fate is not in your future.
Robert J. Kulas is a member of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He practiced of law in Florida for the last 23 years. For more information or to attend an upcoming seminar, call 398-0720.