A while back, I bought a custom “Magic 8-ball” for my office. Why would an estate planning attorney need such a thing? Well, this custom 8-ball doesn’t dole out nebulous Yes, No, or Maybes. It contains a variety of scenarios that could all take place with someone’s estate: Happy ending for everyone. Underage beneficiaries. 25 heirs. Real firearms. Slayer Statute. And more.
I’ve found it’s an excellent way to start conversations in my office or at events, or when a client asks me, “What could possibly happen to my stuff?”
I just hand them the 8-ball and say, “Go ahead, shake it. See what comes up.” Then I ask, “Would you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing? What happens in that case and are you comfortable allowing your family to guess the same outcome if you don’t put it in writing?”
This lighthearted approach leads the way into the more difficult conversation: What might possibly happen in your situation, and what can we do to prepare for that?
The truth is most people have no idea what could happen in many of the above scenarios. They may never have even considered them as possibilities.
Invalid Will. Did you know that if a will is determined invalid, you will likely be considered to have died intestate? This means that your wishes, as expressed in that invalid Will, could be entirely ignored by the state. You may have written that you didn’t want your awful and irresponsible daughter to inherit your estate, but if your Will is invalid, she may inherit anyway.
Firearms. If you haven’t made the proper arrangements, firearms transfers can become a major headache. Say you intended to leave those firearms to a relative out of state: well, without the proper Gun Trust, those firearms will probably have to be surrendered to an FFL (Federal Firearms Licensee – and there are even different types of those) in your state of residence, then transferred to an FFL in the other state, before they can pass to your intended recipient. It’s a logistical mess, but avoidable with the correct preparation.
Underage beneficiaries. Did you know that if a minor receives over a certain dollar amount in inheritance, the surviving parent (or parents if the inheritance comes from another relative or friend) may have to go to court to ensure the child receives that money? If there are no trust provisions, the court may be reluctant to hand a large sum of money over to the surviving parent or parents on the child’s behalf and just say, “Have fun!” A colleague recently shared with me his experience in this realm, and it involved some serious judicial intervention. Who wants to deal with that?
These are just a few of the twenty possible scenarios from my magic ball just to give you food for thought. In real life, there are many, many more, and believe me, some of them can really take people by surprise.
Think about Elvis, for example. The way he died shocked everyone, but when it’s your time to go… (Pun intended.) If Elvis had an 8-ball, if he had known exactly when his death would come, would he have done some things differently? Would he have chosen a different situation for his final moments? I suppose we’ll never know. However, if you could anticipate the future—if you could envision the possible scenarios, and prepare for them so you know the people and things most important to you will be taken care of—wouldn’t you want to?
We don’t know what’s going to happen in life. The best intentions can sometimes lead to unintended consequences if you don’t set things up the right way. That’s where I come in. I help my clients lay out a plan, so they have a better chance at achieving their intended outcomes with less court involvement and less expense in the long run.
Here’s another celebrity example of how things don’t always go as planned: When Sonny Bono and Cher divorced, their divorce agreement included terms for a 50/50 royalty split on their joint songs. Cher (somewhat) recently filed a lawsuit against Sonny Bono’s widow (as Trustee of Sonny Bono’s Trust) for $1 million, because Mary Bono claims that the time limitation established by the Copyright Act means Cher’s rights have expired, and therefore the Trust no longer needs to pay Cher royalties on those songs. The lawsuit involves complicated matters of copyright, family law, and also estate issues, and I would guess that neither Sonny nor Cher expected this to happen when they signed that agreement. Could this messy lawsuit have been avoided? Perhaps. I’m not a copyright expert… but that’s partly my point. *Disclaimer: I am not privy to the intimate and state-specific details and laws governing these two scenarios and, therefore I am not expressing a legal opinion or position.
Some clients’ estates are extremely complicated, and just because someone is an estate planning attorney doesn’t mean they know everything about every possible aspect of an estate. If a client’s estate included intellectual property, I would call in a trademark, copyright, or patent attorney for expert input, because I focus on firearms and other things. If there’s something I’m not well versed in, I know who to call… and sometimes that’s half the battle. I can be the person my client calls, and I can take it from there, rather than a client calling twelve different attorneys or some random person they saw on a billboard or in an ad. I can ensure my client has a comprehensive plan that covers every aspect of their situation with careful preparation for all contingencies.
So why do I use an 8-ball? It’s just a whimsical tool to diffuse the tension and put my clients at ease during those difficult conversations, so that I can ensure all those contingencies, all those What-ifs, are planned for and prepared for. Plus, it’s a fun throw-back to my childhood. Nobody has complete control over life, but with careful preparation, you can avoid losing control beyond the grave, if that’s your intention.
Next post, I’ll be sharing another story from my time in the military, one which just might make you think a little differently about privacy, and how it impacts our decisions.
Thank you all for joining me here for each new blog post! I’m excited about the feedback these blogs have been getting, and I look forward to sharing more.