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13 truly scary things that happen all the time when someone really dies

estate planning Oct 31, 2019

On this Halloween day, when everyone is dressed as ghouls and goblins and talking about death and scary things, I thought I'd let you know 13 truly scary things that really happen all the time to innocent people and their families after someone dies in real life.

The courthouse can be a real scream if you don't know what actually happens there. Ask yourself if you want these horrors to plague your kids and loved ones when you're gone. They are all real. I've seen them all in the real world. Don't let these things happen to you.

1. Your family (usually your kids) pays thousands of dollars in legal fees unnecessarily. When someone dies either without a plan or with a will, there is a court case called probate. Yes, there is a probate case when you have a will. A lot of people don't know that. Some probate cases are simple. Some are complicated. Some become nightmares. Most people hire a lawyer to help them. It's a lot easier that way.

Most lawyers bill by the hour. Just last week, a man called me frustrated because he was paying $600 per hour for a lawyer to handle a simple probate case for his sister. He's already paid thousands, and it's not done yet. This is common practice and a common experience.

With proper planning, the probate process can be avoided completely. In other words, no court. That means that legal fees can be zero. That's right. Zero.

2. Your bank accounts are frozen and your family can't access your money. This happens all the time. Your kids go into the bank after you die. They need to get the money for burial expenses or to pay the mortgage on the house or for a million other things. The bank staff is very nice, but they push a button when they find out you've died that freezes your account. The only way your kids can get the money is to get a court order (called Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration) first. And so they go back to number one and start paying lawyers unnecessarily.

With proper planning, your kids or others you designate have immediate and uninterrupted access to your money and accounts so they can take care of everything easily.

3. Your money is lost. My banker friends tell me that people come in every single month asking if their mother or father or sister or brother had any bank accounts there. They've died, and the family is trying to find all of their accounts. Think about how many accounts you have. Online accounts. Security deposits. Brokerage accounts. Retirement accounts. Oh yeah—there was a savings plan at that job you had 10 years ago that you never moved.

In Washington, there's more than $830 million just sitting. People lose money all the time because their families don't know anything about it. Eventually, it goes to the government. A total waste.

With proper planning, nothing is lost. Everything is preserved and protected so it goes to your kids and loved ones or charities or whomever else you want.

4. Your family is still messing around with court months (or years) later. In some places, average probate cases take more than a year to complete. In Washington, it usually takes at least four months, but I see most cases lasting 6–9 months if you're really on top of it. If it takes longer to finalize taxes, there are a many assets or many different kinds of assets (i.e., real property, brokerage accounts, stocks, bank accounts, retirement accounts, etc.), or any conflict, it will take longer. Sometimes much longer.

A woman called me a few months ago complaining that she was still waiting for her share of the estate after her sister died. It had been two years. It wasn't a lot of money. But she wanted closure.

With proper planning, the estate can be handled seamlessly as quickly as your family wants to go or at whatever pace is comfortable for everyone involved.

5. Your kids get your money outright and without protection. Too many people are unaware of the options available to them because lawyers and the "system" generally do very poorly at providing any meaningful education to the public at large. So everyone just does a basic will and gives their kids their money. That's not a plan. It's more like the lottery. The kids spend it. Quickly. And then it's gone. Thanks Mom and Dad!

With proper planning, your kids or loved ones can receive money over time or for certain expenses (like college or a first home), and you can create protections so that it can't be lost to creditors, crazy in-laws, lawsuits, the government, predators, or others who'd love a piece of the pie. 

6. All of your financial affairs are public for the whole world to see. The court process is a very public affair. Anyone can see what your will says, who your heirs are, what they are inheriting, and pretty much anything else about your affairs—because everything is public when your estate is going through probate. Google some of your favorite dead famous people: You can see their wills and so much about them. Those records aren't available just because those people are famous. Those types of records, including yours, are always available for everyone to see. 

In the worst scenarios, there are people out there who troll these records and will take advantage of your kids, especially if they are young, inexperienced, immature, or vulnerable in some other way.

With proper planning, you can avoid any public process. Your financial affairs and the plans you set up for your kids and loved ones are private. No one else needs to know what you've done or how you've done it. It's none of their business anyway.

7. Your family falls apart in a fight over something. Sometimes it's the money. Sometimes it's some heirloom—that one sentimental thing that everyone wants and only one person can have. Sometimes it's not about a "thing;" instead, it's about how things happen. Or sometimes it's because one of the siblings isn't in control. It's always about unmet expectations somehow. And now the family falls apart. They used to spend Thanksgiving together and their kids played. Now they don't talk to each other.

With proper planning and open communication IN ADVANCE, these problems all go away. Everyone knows what to expect and there are no surprises. Instead of fighting, your passing can actually bring your family closer together. Imagine it: Your planning can actually facilitate a strengthening of family ties.

8. Your kids end up paying tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in estate taxes. Although the amount you have to have before you owe estate taxes is higher than it's ever been, a lot of people still end up owing huge sums of money to the government—sometimes up to 55% of the total. In the most tragic cases, because life insurance funds or other moneys are handled outside of a proper plan, your family home has to be sold to pay taxes, even though you and your family wanted to keep it. 

With proper planning, including a little education and some financial planning, estate taxes can often be deferred, reduced, or eliminated completely. 

9. Your minor kids end up being raised by someone you really don't want in that role. Ever thought about what happens if you don't make it home? Surely my kids will go with [insert who you think here]. Maybe. Except when they don't.

Consider what happened to the Barber family. When they got into a collision and the parents were killed, the kids ended up in foster care before being moved to the custody of the crazy aunt, who was really just after the money that came with them. More than a year later, after foster care, family feuding, and a bunch of other drama, and after more than $100,000 of the kids' money was spent in legal battles, the kids ended up with their other aunt. Who knows what the parents really wanted for their kids? Probably something different than what actually happened.

With proper planning, your kids are never taken into custody or placed in foster care, and you can make sure that only the people you select can take over the parental role that is so important for their future.

10. You are kept on life support at extraordinary cost for way too long. In the absence of advance directives, the "system" is going to protect itself from liability by doing everything possible to keep you alive—whether that makes any sense or not. And they'll bill you for it. The probate process pays lawyers and the people in the system first. Then it pays creditors. Anything left goes to your heirs. If there's anything left. In the worst case scenarios, it's all gone and your kids get nothing.

With proper planning, your wishes are respected, your dignity is maintained, and your estate remains intact.

11. Your non-citizen spouse gets dinged with HUGE estate taxes, loses their ability to obtain citizenship, and/or is deported because they no longer meet the requirements for legal immigration. The rules on estate taxes, immigration, citizenship, and deportation are entirely different if your spouse is not a U.S. citizen. A non-citizen surviving spouse can lose a lot more than just their husband or wife. They can lose everything.

With proper planning, the potential negative effects of a spouse's death on a non-citizen surviving spouse can be controlled, limited, and often entirely avoided. 

12. Your kids kick your new spouse out of your house. Sometimes your adult kids just can't accept your new spouse, even if you've been together for many years. And so they persecute your dear companion after you're gone. They fight to have him or her kicked out of your house so they can get the asset for themselves. They fuss or fight over everything. They hire their own lawyers and cause all sorts of problems for your spouse. All in the name of sentimentality. After all, your spouse is not "their" parent. 

With proper planning, these sorts of disasters can be entirely avoided. You can make clear provisions for your kids AND your surviving second (or third or fourth) spouse. Everyone can be taken care of in the way that YOU want.

13. Your "most helpful" child doesn't do what you always said they should do. People try to "get around" all of these problems all the time by doing things that seem very reasonable but are horrible ideas. Just one example: joint accounts. Here's what happens:

Little Johnny is your son—the one who lives close by and has always helped. You put Little Johnny on your account with you so he can help pay bills and manage things for you. You tell Little Johnny and all the other kids that when you die, anything left in the account is to be shared equally between the kids. You die with your kids by your side. Little Johnny goes to the lawyer to administer the estate and run the probate because he's the one who's always handled everything. The lawyer tells him that the joint account he's on is now his. He thinks to himself: "I really have been the one who's taken care of Mom or Dad all this time. I've given up a lot. I've made real sacrifices." He decides to keep the money for himself. It doesn't matter how much it is. The other kids freak out. They all hire lawyers. They fight. Little Johnny wins this case. Every time. They all spend a bunch of money. They never speak again. Their kids don't play together any more. It's very sad.

All because you tried to do something that seems reasonable. You didn't know there are better ways to accomplish these goals. Ways that actually work.

With proper planning, your assets stay yours, and your wishes are always followed. These problems never appear.

You may be lucky. You and your family may avoid these problems. I hope you do. But more often than not, people who have no plan, or who heard they just needed a will (because that's all anyone has ever heard on TV or in the movies), end up facing one or more of these problems. All. The. Time.

These are scary situations. And they are so easy to avoid. They are easy to eliminate entirely. With a little education. With a little commitment. With a proper plan.

If you're ready to put a proper plan in place—one that will actually work when you need it most—come and see us. You'll be glad you did. And then you'll sleep easy knowing that your kids, your family, your friends, your loved ones, are taken care of. 

Learn. Save Time. Save Money. Avoid Ruin.