Getting Personal with Attorney Elizabeth Brown

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This week is National Estate Planning Week. Estate planning is important every week to estate planning attorneys, but this one week is set aside so we can remind folks to make sure you have an estate plan and if you have one that it is up to date.

I wanted to write a blog to tell my readers about the importance of estate planning. I could tell you what any other estate planning attorney would tell you: you should have an estate plan that protects your family from a lengthy probate process and avoid any chance of your family having to seek the assistance of the court to make medical decisions on your behalf. That is what every estate planning lawyer will tell you. But, I want to get personal for a minute and tell you why I know estate planning should be important to you.

My personal story illustrates well why individuals need to have estate plans long before they think that they may need them. I grew up in Springfield, Missouri. I was the adopted daughter of parents who were the typical blended family. My father had two children during a prior marriage before he divorced their mother and married a woman who was not much older than his children - who was my mother. They could not have children, and after several years they adopted me. I grew up as an only child.

For most of my early childhood, my father was an insurance salesman. You would have thought an insurance salesman would have bought a lot of life insurance for himself. But, just as many contractors have houses that are in disarray, my dad did not purchase the products he sold.

My father’s family (one brother and parents) lived in a very small town in Ava, Missouri. The Barnes family had amassed quite a fortune for the 1970s and owned substantial real estate, the plumbing company in town, a furniture store, a hotel, and a restaurant, and farming land among other ventures. My father’s retirement plan was to inherit his half of his father’s estate.

In May 1978, I saw my dad cry for the only time. That morning he received news that his father had had a massive heart attack on his way to church and had passed away. My grandfather died without a will and without a succession plan for the family’s business assets. My father was the family’s default succession plan, and he soon quit his job and started working in my grandfather’s furniture store. This was not necessarily his passion. I, on the other hand, remember it being the best job in the world! There were mattresses stacked 20 feet high in the small Ava store, and my job on Saturdays was to jump from stack to stack to stack to stack. I am sure this is a joy that few children have ever experienced.

The business succession plan failed, however, only six short months after my father inherited that job working in the store - but not actually inheriting the assets behind them – my own father had a stroke. He spent the next six months in and out of hospitals and passed away in May of 1979 at the age of 57 - only 12 months after his dad passed away.

My high school-educated mother was left with $10,000 in life insurance and litigation pending against my father’s family with respect to my grandfather’s estate.
My grandparents and my parents had not even engaged in simple estate planning! Neither generation had even a simple will. Likewise, the $10,000 of life insurance on my father’s life, even in 1979, was hardly enough to get my mother through the first year after my father’s death.

I tell this story not to garner sympathy for my childhood. My mother turned out to be “hard as nails” and that litigation experience that lasted until I turned 12, was probably the main reason I went to law school. Very few kids have been in and out of attorney offices dozens of times before they reach middle school. But, I don’t think my experience is anyone’s PLAN A. I urge friends, acquaintances, blog readers – and anyone who will listen to put estate plans in place to protect their families. Buy life insurance for your family that is sufficient to satisfy your mortgage, manage to put your children through college, and make sure that your spouse who survives you has some cushion to get through the years after your death.

It is National Estate Planning Week. Pull out your estate plan and make sure it is up to date. If you don’t have an estate plan yet, it’s time to call and make an appointment with a qualified estate planner before the holiday insanity kicks in. And, while you are doing that, make an appointment with a financial advisor who can help you determine the life insurance needs of your family and make sure that your family is protected in the case that the unthinkable happens to you.