death in the family

Are you a single mother or a single father? Have you lost your co-parent? Are you raising your children alone due to a divorce or death?

This article from the Huffington Post, by Kelly James, really moved me. To the point where I had to stop reading for a bit and start again later because I didn’t want to cry at the office.

Kelly’s Story

Kelly writes about a phone call from her 10-year-old daughter. A terrible and scary phone call. When Kelly picked up the phone, she heard her daughter, blurt out “Ryan (her older brother) thinks Daddy’s dead!”

The thought of receiving that phone call, or being the subject of that phone call, is chilling. How do you even respond to those words coming from your ten-year-old child? Kelly did exactly the right thing and jumped into action, to try and save the life of her ex-husband. Sadly, he passed away, and Kelly was left to parent her two children alone.

In my job, I’m forced to confront mortality every day. The fragility of life is never lost on me because it’s part of my everyday work. People call us because someone they love has died. Or has just received a terminal diagnosis. Or was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia. A big part of my job is helping these people plan for, or deal with, terrible events in their lives.

But despite doing this every day, Kelly’s story still got to me. I felt so sad for her and her children. These young kids being the ones to find their deceased father on the couch. We live our lives trying to protect our kids, and no one wants their child to find them that way. In part, it’s a good thing that the story moved me – it reminds me that I haven’t gone numb to these types of events and that I still have compassion for those going through such things.

Kelly was forced to confront the fact that now she was the only living parent of her kids, and that she had to plan ahead, for their sake. And planning ahead means more than just trying to stay healthy and stick around for your kids. It means planning for the possibility that you might not be around. Kelly’s ex-husband, Erik, certainly didn’t plan to pass away at a young age. No one ever plans that. But it happens. And if we haven’t planned, the result can be even more tragic.

What effect does death or divorce have on your estate plan?

Kelly talks about the importance of putting her estate plan together after her ex passed away. She hadn’t updated her Will in 14 years (before the birth of her second child). She had a new Will drawn up and chose guardians for her kids in case she passed away. She also sat them down and talked to them about who they would live with if anything ever happened to her. She said “I will do everything I can to stay alive for you. But if something happens, I promise it will be ok. You will be ok.” A tough conversation, for sure, but one that the children would be glad of if tragedy hit this family again. What an amazing and brave thing to do for her children. We all take for granted that we will be here forever, so we don’t have those tough conversations with our kids. 

Beyond just naming guardians, the estate plan should name someone to make medical and financial decisions for Kelly if she became unable to do so, and express her wishes for passing down her home, her wealth, and legacy to her kids. At what age should they inherit her assets? Should it be lump-sum, or spread out over time due to the kids’ young age? Those are all questions that a good plan will answer. A properly drafted plan should cover all of this.

And what about the old Will she had in place, and any other estate planning documents she already had? In Massachusetts, the old rules revoked your Will if you got divorced. Today, under the Uniform Probate Code, the Will isn’t revoked, but all provisions regarding your “ex” are revoked, leaving the rest of the document in place. The problem is that many documents don’t have built-in contingency plans, and so a revocation of provisions about an ex-spouse often leaves the document basically useless. The same goes for the death of a spouse or ex-spouse. In the event of a death or divorce, your plan needs to be updated. If it happens, reach out to your estate planning lawyer right away.

My own plan for my family

I had to take my own advice and discuss this with my children. I’ve been lucky. My wife Jill and I just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, and we’ve been together 25 years. But that doesn’t mean that either of us is promised tomorrow. We travel often, and anything could happen. I should know that because I see it every day.

My daughter Gabby will be 18 soon. Although a legal adult, 18 is still very young. She knows about estate planning because of my chosen field. I was concerned that making Gabby the responsible person under our plan if Jill and I passed away might be too much responsibility for an 18-year-old kid. Gabby had an answer though. She said, “Dad if anything ever happened to you or mom, there shouldn’t be anyone else making decisions for you other than me and my brother.” And she’s right. She can handle it, so this April, when she turns 18, our plan will be completely changed to add Gabby as our “person in charge”. 

That’s another milestone, your kids turning 18, that should lead to a review of your plan. When Gabby turns 18, she needs her own Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney, so that we, as parents, are not locked out of her medical records and health care decisions.

The lesson here is…

Plan for your children. If a parent dies, they already must deal with that loss. The legal side of things, such as the home, money, insurance, etc., shouldn’t also be stressors for them. Let them grieve, and make sure you plan ahead. That way, like Kelly’s kids, if something happens to you, you can promise them they will be ok.

Michael Monteforte, Jr.
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People come to me in trying times and when I tell them I can help them, the weight falls off their shoulders.
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