Contributed by: Erin L. Steele, Elder Law Coordinator
My parents purchased a business from my grandparents in 1986 - my dad managed our family, the business and a full-time job for many years. My parents divorced when I was 13. As part of their divorce settlement, they agreed that my dad would keep the business and my mom would keep the home we resided in. The business was solely in his name and remained his livelihood for 33 years.
In the spring of 2018, at 67 years old, my dad decided that it was time to retire and sell his business. Over the next several months, he remained active preparing for retirement. However, in the middle of all this activity, he became ill. The sale of the business and his retirement were suddenly placed on hold.
I once heard Mary Schmich say “Don’t worry about the future, or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.” For me, the real worry blindsided me at 11:20 a.m. on some idle Thursday in February 2019. I received a phone call to come home, my dad was not expected to live more than a few days. Needless to say, I was completely shocked and left with a deep feeling of sorrow, helplessness and anxiety. That Thursday afternoon, my husband and I took the most dreadful ride of my life, the 5 hour journey home to say goodbye and be by my dad’s side as he passed from this earth.
Still treading through the darkness of this shock, I began thinking about our next steps. I said to my husband, “I wonder if he has a Will or any type of estate plan? He is in the middle of selling his business – what kind of a mess could we potentially be dealing with?”
Fast forward one year. My father did not have a Last Will and Testament to appoint someone to manage his assets or memorialize his wishes of how his estate was to be distributed. The responsibility of those decisions fell to the laws of intestate succession and probate - another thing a healthy estate plan could have avoided. At my father’s passing, he held his business and the real estate where it operated in his sole name. Once more, he was unmarried with two adult children. Although the intestacy laws protect my father’s estate for my brother and me and offer us the first right of being his personal representatives, we renounced that right in favor of his life partner.
Due to the delays of probate, his estate may not settle for another twelve months, creating the possibility that two years will pass before things are resolved. This has intensified our grieving process as we are experiencing a nagging distraction regularly calling our attention to timelines and paperwork, when we prefer to be healing. Even within our friendly family relationships, this process has been a stressor, challenging us to collectively agree on certain steps, and to not be offended when our presumption of my father’s wishes isn’t carried out.
Having a good estate plan not only appoints someone to manage your assets when you are no longer able, but it also expresses your wishes for how your assets are distributed at your death and who will carry out your wishes. It clearly directs your family and assets once you are gone. The anguish is enough of a burden, but the confusion and uncertainty of dealing with an estate with no Will, along with the probate process, challenges families to remain unified. The tension is avoidable with a good plan.
A comprehensive estate plan should always include an Advanced Health Care Directive, Durable Power of Attorney and either a traditional Last Will and Testament or, for the best planning possible, a Revocable Living Trust. Your plan should be designed by an attorney who specializes in estate planning so she can address any complexity specific to your family and accomplish your life goals. An expert attorney can assist you in meeting your individual objectives and unique needs as well as guide you through the appropriate estate planning process that will take care of your family and legacy after you are gone.
I wish my dad had been able to see the sale of his business and enjoy retirement. I miss him.