Estate Planning LawyerI heard an interesting story yesterday that should cause anyone who has minor children to pause and think if they have done what they need to do. Heck, it should cause anyone without minor children to reach out to their friends with minor children and pass along the warnings from the story. Without further ado, here goes. 

The story starts with a relaxing summer day at a lake in the mountains. A family of six have decided to take the day at the lake and bring out their boat. It is Norman Rockwellesque; a mom and dad with four kids, ages 7, 9, 11, and 13. They have an enjoyable morning zooming around the lake and decide to take a break for lunch. They pull the boat into a cove and anchor it. Mom and Dad go under a nearby tree and start to set up the picnic while the kids are down by the beach playing in the water. So far, so good. 

As happens on such summer days in the mountains a cloud forms out of nowhere and lightning strikes the tree, under which Mom and Dad are preparing the lunch and both of them are killed. That was a tragedy. However, for the kids the tragedy was just starting. 

The parents, in their early 40s, had not even considered their mortality. Therefore, it stands to reason that an estate plan was not anywhere near their radar. After all, that is something that you worry about when both you and your kids are older and you are thinking about what to pass on to them. The issue of the assets of the parents was not the biggest concern though. In fact, the court simply divided them equally between the four kids and established a conservatorship to help take care of their needs until they reached majority. 

Because the parents had not indicated who would be their children’s guardians should something happen to them, confusion and conflict ensued. Both sets of grandparents wanted to take on the raising of the children. Both sets were relatively young and in good health. Both sets had similar belief systems to the parents and were financially stable. Both appeared to be a good choice for permanent guardians. But that was the problem.

Neither set of grandparents would give any ground as they tried to convince the court that they should take over the raising of the children. Meanwhile, because of the dispute which started to get rather ugly, the kids were sitting in foster care with strangers for over a year while the grandparents as well as aunts and uncles fought over the ultimate destination for the kids. 

Finally, four concerned neighbors of the family stepped in and asked the court to appoint them as separate guardians for each of the children. Based on the conflict that did not seem to have any end point in sight, as well as each child’s familiarity with the neighbors and the opportunity for each child to stay in the neighborhood and schools that they were used to, the court found it was more in the children’s best interest to be separated than to be in the middle of the contention that was happening with their extended family. What a story. 

Most good stories have a moral, so here is this one. Parents with minor children ABSOLUTELY need to think about their estate plan. Who do YOU want to take care of your children should the unexpected happen and you don’t return home one night from a date with your spouse? The courts will, absent extenuating circumstances, honor that request if it is done right. How do you want your children to receive any inheritance or even life insurance proceeds. A well drafted estate plan will make sure that happens. 

Many will say that an estate plan is not something that they have the money for as they are just starting out their journey raising children. I get it. Those kids are not cheap. But it is arguably more important to have an estate plan as a young parent than as someone who is in their later years and whose kids are all adults. Yes, it is great to have control over what happens to your assets that you worked so hard to accumulate after you die, but you certainly do not want someone else deciding what happens to your kids that you want the best possible result for should you die all of the sudden while they are minors.

You may also think that is a sad story, but I know my parents and siblings. They would never do that. The courts are so busy because so many people think the same. If people acted predictably, the courts would be much much smaller, and I would have to find a different career. 

I am Darren Watts, from Watts Law, PLLC, and I have shared this in hopes that you will take the steps necessary so that should you have the misfortune of leaving minor children when you die it will only be a misfortune and not a tragedy.