Health care directives, or living wills, made major headlines during the Terri Schiavo case and many people talked about the need for such documents. But as the topic has faded from the headlines, it has also faded from our minds. A health care directive allows you to express your wishes and make decisions on medical issues if you are unable to communicate with your doctors. You can also appoint an agent to make these decisions for you. Even though the subject matter may be difficult, getting a health care directive is really simple. What excuse do you have for putting it off?
Imagine for a moment that you have just died suddenly. Your grieving loved ones are in complete shock. When it comes time to “get down to business” they are still having a difficult time accepting the fact you are gone. They come to your house looking for a will. They think you might have one, but don’t know for sure. Will they be able to find one? Through their tears, they rifle through your important looking papers. They are trying to figure out what assets you owned, what debts you have, and where everything is located. How long will it tack them to track everything down? As they inventory your personal property, they wonder what they are supposed to do with it. Who would you want to receive your treasured book collection?
Unfortunately, this scene is all to common for many families. Do your loved ones a favor – let them know whether or not you have a will (you really should) and where it is. Let them know where your important documents are kept. Do whatever you can to keep your papers organized. Consider preparing an Estate Organizer. Each of my estate planing clients receives one – a workbook where they can provide information on the important people and professionals who should be contacted, the identification and location of assets, debts, and important paperwork, instructions for personal property, and a list of all of those memberships and internet accounts you might want cancelled upon your death.
Taking the time now to organize can save your family a lot of time and tears later.
Once you have decided you need a lawyer, the next question is how do you find a lawyer? There are many different ways to find a lawyer, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the most common ways to find a lawyer:
- Referrals from Friends and Family – By asking friends and family members for referrals, you are getting a recommendation from trusted people who know you, will know what you are looking for in a lawyer, and what personalities you “click” with. However, don’t let referrals from friends and family be the end all be all in finding your lawyer. Your parents’ nice estate planning attorney may not have the skills necessary for your discrimination lawsuit and your best friend’s business attorney may not be the best choice for your divorce.
- The World Wide Web – The Internet is becoming the way we find information. It takes mere seconds to go to your favorite search engine (Google, Yahoo, MSN) and find attorneys in your area. You’ll find attorneys’ websites as well as local listing information. Just keep in mind that lawyers and technology don’t always go hand in hand. Some excellent lawyers might not have websites, or might not rank high in the search rankings.
- The Good Old Yellow Pages – Before the Internet, people used the phone book to find information. Just open up that great big book and look under “Attorneys.” However, as the Internet gains in popularity, the phone book fades away, and because fewer clients are turning to the phone book to find attorneys, fewer attorneys are spending their advertising money on a Yellow Pages ad.
- Referrals from Organizations – Another place to find a lawyer is through referrals from different organizations. Contact your local chamber of commerce or bar association. Check with different social service organizations. Look at organizations related to the area of law you are dealing with. When using an organization for a referral, ask about the criteria they use. How do attorneys get on the referral list? Does the organization do any type of screening, or do they just keep a list of lawyers?
Remember, the lawyer you choose can greatly impact your case. Take the time to find the right lawyer for you.
New York recently became the 50th state to enact some version of no-fault divorce legislation. No-fault divorce allows couples to seek a divorce based upon an “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage, “irreconcilable differences,” or simply “things are not working and we want a divorce.” California was the first state to recognize no-fault divorce in 1970.
Prior to the introduction of no-fault divorce, a person seeking a divorce would have to prove his/her spouse was at fault, based upon such grounds as abandonment or adultery. A judge would hear these allegations, and the other spouse could provide defenses. The judge would then make a decision based upon whether the first spouse had proven the second spouse was at fault. If so, the first spouse was entitled to a divorce. In some cases, a judge could decide both spouses were at fault, and as such neither spouse was entitled to a divorce.
No-fault divorce allows divorcing couples to divorce amicably and without the need to air dirty laundry or make accusations.
When we talk about estate planning we are generally talking about the business of transferring property and money upon death. However, our most valuable assets often have nothing to do with trust funds or dollar signs. Things such as family history; life lessons; personal values; old photographs, journals, or poems – these are the things that mean the most to us, and to our families. Unless you plan ahead, there is a very good chance these things will be lost upon your death.
One way to preserve these things is by preparing an “ethical will” or “legacy letter.” This is not a legal document or will in the normal sense of the word. But it is a way for you to organize your thoughts and feelings and share them with your loved ones after you are gone. For a great resource on ethical wills check out: http://ethicalwill.com/
In a divorce, marital property is divided between the spouses. Marital property includes all things that have been accumulated during the marriage, including real estate, vehicles, savings accounts, and retirement assets. Retirement assets can often be overlooked. In order to reach an equitable division of property, it is important to understand what assets are available, what the value of these assets are, and what makes the most sense in dividing these assets.
There are many different types of retirement assets. Some, such as IRAs and 401(k)s are easy to determine the true value just by looking at a recent statement. While you may be subject to taxes and penalties, the funds in these accounts can generally be liquidated early. Other retirement assets, such as pensions, can be difficult to determine the value of, and you may need to hire an expert to value these assets. With a pension there is no way to receive funds until the retirement of the employee.
Once you have determined the value of the retirement assets you and your spouse can figure out an equitable way to divide these assets. Many times, divorcing couples immediately jump to “we’ll split them all equally” – meaning Husband will get half of Wife’s IRA, half of Wife’s 401(k), and half of Wife’s PERA and Wife will get half of Husband’s IRA, half of Husband’s 401(k), and half of Husband’s pension. This can cause a lot of headache, and extra expense, when it comes down to dividing the retirement accounts. Instead of focusing on splitting everything evenly, when developing a plan to divide retirement think about what will be required for the division and what the receiving spouse intends to do with those funds. You can still reach an equal division of the assets by offsetting the amounts rather than splitting each asset individually.
Sometimes a spouse wishes to use retirement assets after a divorce towards a down payment of a new house or payment of marital debt. In these situations receiving an award of the 401(k) or IRA will be much more useful than the pension.
Many retirement accounts will require a separate court order specifically regarding the division of that account – a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), governed by federal ERISA law. One QDRO can cost a minimum of $300 each. Some accounts (such as IRAs) do not require the separate court order, and other accounts (such as PERAs) allow for special language inserted in the divorce decree for division. You can save several hundreds of dollars by dividing the retirement assets in a way that minimizes the need for QDROs.