The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law
Be a woman with a plan
I often find myself talking with others about the critical importance of estate planning. Not just at the office where I spend the better part of every day thinking about how to help my clients preserve, protect and transfer their wealth, but in my personal life as well. For many of you, I have just made my way onto your list of people to avoid at cocktail parties. Of course, some of you have your plans in order and can’t wait to bump into me so that you can tell me how you rest easy knowing that your loved ones will always be taken care of, even if something happens to you. If I do run into you at a cocktail party, we’ll both feel good about your effort and I will be really impressed if you recognize that you should, and actually do, reconsider whether your plan will accomplish your goals on a regular basis—at least every year or two.
For the rest of you, I’m hoping that I can convince you that creating a plan should be a priority for every adult, including those who just celebrated their 18th and 100th birthdays and everyone in between. My further hope is that you will then push yourself and your loved ones to start the process of designing a plan that achieves your goals while taking into account what is true about you today.
Did I mention that estate planning is particularly important to women? It is, extremely important. Why? Today women are healthier and more active than ever before; we earn more college degrees, and control the majority of wealth in our country. That’s great news—we’re going to live a long life as smart women of wealth! Woot! Unfortunately, there’s also a problem. Many women do not play an active role in controlling their finances or futures. Although many women realize that their disability or death would be devastating for their loved ones, they do nothing to plan for those unexpected events. Maybe they think that it’s not really relevant to their specific circumstances, or that there will be time for that later. Of course, maybe you’re not so sure that your magic eight ball is the best indicator of when you’ll need a plan and you’re considering hedging your bets by starting now. I’d like to try to provide you with the incentive to get moving.
So, let’s start with the single women. How important is an estate plan to you? Consider how your finances would be managed if you were to become suddenly disabled—even if only temporarily. Now it’s possible that someone would volunteer to help you and they might even be willing to go through the effort of being appointed your conservator—remember Britney Spears? But, it’s so much easier to name the person of your choice as your agent under a power of attorney. While you’re at it, you might as well make sure that you have someone who is empowered to make medical decisions for you when you cannot make them for yourself. If you do this while you’re healthy, you’ll have the opportunity to discuss your thoughts on organ donation and life sustaining treatments. Not to mention that your surrogate will really understand your wishes so that they can confidently make decisions.
Now, let’s talk to the moms. Many women begin the estate planning process when or because they became a mother. Children rely on their moms—for everything. The thought of not being there to take care of them—well, that’s just awful and no mom wants to think about it. Of course, the thought of the wrong person taking care of your children is worse. Moms want to make sure that their children will have the emotional support they need—someone to tuck them into bed and read them a story when they are three and talk to them about peer pressure when they are 15. Moms definitely have an opinion about who that person should be—or not be! If your child needs a guardian—whether temporarily (because, for example, you are in a car accident) or permanently—you will want to be part of the selection committee. Take the time to make your opinion known through your plan documents. And don’t you want to make sure that your child will use the resources that you left behind for college rather than that really sweet car?
While we’re talking about children, let’s consider what happens when our darlings turn 18 and become adults. Adults in the eyes of the law, maybe—but we all know that our kids will continue to need help our to make good decisions for years after that magical birthday. Of course, in order to be certain that you are able to help your child in the same way that you did when they were younger (you know, the day before that magical birthday) you will want to be named in their estate planning documents. Think about it, if your child needed to get out of an apartment lease—could you take care of it? What if your child needs medical care, will it matter to you if your child’s other parent is deemed the decision maker? Helping your adult children to start their estate planning process early will also help them to realize its importance so that they will make it a priority throughout their lifetime. And think how critical that will be when you become a grandmother!
Finally, let’s talk about those women who are married. Did I mention that women tend to live longer than men? That means that many women will outlive their husbands and, then, either benefit from a good estate plan or suffer from a failed or nonexistent one. Take the time now to consider how you would manage if your husband became disabled or you were suddenly widowed. Would you have what you need to continue to care for yourself and your family? Do you have a good understanding of your family’s financial picture and specific enough information to make necessary decisions? And, are you legally empowered to act for your husband if he cannot act for himself?
It’s the perfect time to start the estate planning process, regardless of where you are in your life. Here’s the good news—some planning is better than no planning. So start with the easy decisions, and work from there. More good news, estate planning is a dynamic process that can change over time so it doesn’t have to be perfect. Each day helps you see with a little more clarity what will be needed to take care of yourself and your family if the unexpected happens. Plan now and plan often. You’ll feel good about it, I promise. ■