As an Estate Planning Attorney I work with families in all types of situations. Some families are large some are small; many are blended families of the “yours, mine and ours” variety. Some families have members with disabilities or dependency issues. Some are well off and some have modest assets. I work with each family to design and create an estate plan that is custom made for them. Every family is unique but the goals are generally the same.
Those goals are to create legal documents that will
- Handle your affairs when you are incapacitated.
- Transfer your assets to your loved ones when you pass away.
- Keep transferred assets from causing harm to the beneficiary
It is my goal to make sure that as far as possible the documents I draft will function as needed when they are needed. I can’t stop tragedy from entering people’s lives and I don’t pretend to say that a well-crafted Living Will or Power of Attorney is a comfort during trying times. I do say that having an effective set of estate planning documents in place when misfortune occurs reduces the stress and worry level, at least a little. I don’t make that statement lightly or casually.
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I share the following event because I want everyone I work with to understand why I take my work so seriously.
My oldest son, Kristopher, at the age of 22, was involved in a vehicle accident. The accident occurred Thursday evening, April 3rd, 2014 just before 10:00pm. He had gotten off work at the local grocery store then stopped at home, changed his clothes. He told me that he was going to a friend’s house and that he would be home the next morning around 10 to wash his work clothes. “Love Ya’s” were said as he was walking out the door.
About 15 minutes after Kristopher left the house the phone rang and a woman was calling to say that she had heard a loud noise outside so she had gone to see what it was. A large tree had fallen across the road and, as she was going in to call 911 she heard Kristopher’s brakes and his car crashing through the top half of the tree that was across the entire road. Kristopher was aware enough to give her his name and phone number. She told me he was saying he couldn’t feel his legs.
Leaving my wife at home with our four other boys, I immediately left for the accident scene. A gentleman stayed with Kristopher until the medics arrived. When I arrived there were several fire trucks and most of the tree was still across the road so I was unable to get to Kristopher until I parked and walked over. The firemen were cutting up the tree and they let me through after I told them my son was the driver. As I approached the car there were 5-6 firemen surrounding the car, they had just gotten Kristopher on the gurney. The CDF Captain approached me, and told me that Kristopher was semi-conscious, knew who he was, but could not feel his legs, and that the helicopter was on the way to get him. I made my way to the gurney as it was moving toward the ambulance and let him know I was there. He was very confused and mumbling. Kristopher was loaded onto the ambulance, driven across the river to Lotus Park, and taken by helicopter to Sutter Roseville.
I have been through many serious and difficult things in my life. I went through boot camp and infantry training in the Marine Corp. I was a dog catcher and picked up many injured and dead animals from the road side. I was an emergency dispatcher on the graveyard shift for a decade and dealt with many seriously unpleasant situations. I was a crime scene technician for the sheriff’s department and saw and worked around many horrible things. I went to law school at night while having a family, a full time job and a mortgage. I took and passed on the first try the California Bar exam, which has one of the lowest pass rates in the country. I quit my secure government job at the age of 45 and spent my life savings to start my own business as an attorney. I have adopted 5 boys and gone through the seriously unpleasant and expensive California adoption process. I had cancer in 2001 and had multiple surgeries and chemotherapy. All of the hair on my body fell out and I was very sick for many months and was unable to work for a year.
Worse than all of those things, indescribably worse, was standing next to my son’s demolished car and having to make a phone call to my wife, Kristopher’s mom. As she was waiting at home with our other boys, who were sleeping safely in their beds, worrying, praying and hoping; I knew what had happened. I was on the after side of this horrific and tragic before and after point in our lives. The point in time at which all things to come and all things that had been would be marked for our family. I would be the one to bring this horror into her life, the bearer of news worse than she had ever received before this moment. This moment that would be the beginning of constant sadness, grief and anger. I would cause the instant that was to be the beginning of our never ending waking nightmare, the nightmare of seeing our little boy as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. I had to tell her that our son was in a helicopter on the way to a hospital and it was very likely that he was paralyzed. I knew while on the phone with her that even then there existed hope in my wife’s heart, the possibility that the hospital would find out it really wasn’t as bad as everyone thought.
As for me, even though no doctor had confirmed it, no x-rays had been taken and no surgery performed I knew, Kristopher was paralyzed. The look in the eyes of the firemen who extracted him from the car, the sympathetic and compassionate way the CHP officer treated me and most of all the site of him motionless on the gurney told me he was paralyzed. My son has never been still his entire life, even while sleeping. Every teacher he ever had either complained about or learned to deal with his constant motion. He has Tourette’s syndrome and has always, always, twitched, fidgeted or bounced. When he began having epileptic seizures and dislocated his shoulder multiple times he wasn’t still. While under general anesthetic to repair his shoulder, he not once, not twice but three times re-dislocated his shoulder in the recovery room because of his unconscious movement. I knew, because I had seen with my own eyes, my little boy, who was never still, motionless.
As soon as the tree was cleared from the road, I was able to go to the hospital to be with Kristopher. That was not a pleasant drive. On that drive to the hospital the hope I knew my wife had tortured me. I have never liked the road that goes through a canyon to get to the town where the helicopter was taking Kristopher. It is winding, narrow, twisty, heavily traveled and poorly maintained. I now loathe that road. I began to think about what my son’s life would be like. I selfishly thought about how this would affect my life and my plans. Then I felt guilty for thinking that my life was forever changed. I couldn’t talk to my wife because I knew she still had hope, I didn’t want to drag her into this new and awful world. It was a very long drive.
I walked into the emergency room and stood by his gurney and was told by a doctor that he was paralyzed and there was no hope because the spinal cord had been completely severed. One more time I called my wife and crushed her hope. My words ended forever her before and dragged her into the after.
Kristopher’s visible injury was deceptively small. The small cut on his forehead was the only visible sign of any trauma however that was the least of his problems. Kristopher suffered a fractured C2, crushed C6 and C7 vertebrae, and his spinal cord was completely severed.
He is a permanent quadriplegic. This means all four of his limbs are affected. He cannot feel or control anything below the midline of his chest. This means his feet, legs, bladder, bowels, stomach and lower back muscles. He needs help to cough effectively. He has partial use of his left thumb and index finger, he can lift and use his smartphone and feed himself. It is possible but extremely unlikely that he will someday be able to live on his own. He will probably always require someone to help him with many daily tasks, such as bathing, dressing, opening non-automatic doors, bladder and bowel care, laundry, cooking and the list goes on and on.
After nearly a year and a half he was awarded Social Security benefits. This happened only after I was able to show Social Security that he had no assets no income and was permanently disabled. There must be people that work in the Social Security offices that are compassionate, use common sense, are able to read and understand their own procedure and policy rules, come to work consistently and answer a phone, but I never dealt with one. I had dealt with Social Security prior to my son’s case, but after his case I very much understand how a family member feels when trying to get a loved one benefits.
In addition to training and professional experience with the creation of Special Needs Trusts, I have very personal and intimate experience with why such a Trust would be needed. During the time immediately following my son’s accident the fact that he had a Power of Attorney and an Advanced Health Care Directive naming his mother and me as his agents helped a great deal. We were able to deal with insurance companies, the hospital, his doctors, his bank, his employer and countless other things. My wife and I are not doctors or medical professionals, we could only stand by and be supportive as he went to physical therapy. If we had been unable to handle the small routine things like his tax return as well, it would have been worse. At least we could DO something. I created a Special Needs Trust for his benefit, his mom dealt with the CPA for his tax return, we did what we could do and that was a help in dealing with the situation.
Everyone and anyone can be struck by tragedy, sickness or injury at any time. I firmly believe that everyone needs at the very least an Advanced Health Care Directive, which allows someone to make medical decisions for them, and a Durable Power of Attorney, which allows someone to make financial decisions for them. These documents don’t have to go into effect until the person is incapacitated, unconscious or unable to handle their own affairs. I sincerely hope that no family ever needs the documents I create for them, but life happens to everyone and it is better to have an Estate Plan in place even if it is just those two basic documents.
I understand that many families can’t afford expensive lawyer drafted Estate Planning documents.It is more important that families have a plan in place than it is that it be a perfect customized plan so whether or not you have the budget, you need to start someplace. I have created a FREE Estate Planning Worksheet you can download to get you started in the right direction and when you’re ready, I’ve made it easy to prepare your own Estate Planning Documents through my self-prepared service you can find here. These documents are created to satisfy California law and are non-customized, but will provide basic estate planning services for modest families. If drafting your own is too much of a headache or you want to make sure everything is done professionally and everything about your situation is considered and prepared for, I can draft your Estate Plan for you exactly the way you need it to be drafted for your unique situation.
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