By: Susie Germany
Every day in our office we see the cost of failing to plan for emergencies, end-of-life decisions and for navigating difficult family dynamics when there is an unexpected illness or death in a family.
According to a Gallup Poll in May, 2016, it is estimated that over 56% percent of people in the United States do not have a will or any disability planning documents, such as Medical Durable Powers of Attorney, General Durable Powers of Attorney or Advanced Directives or Living Wills.
Today with widespread internet research for everything from purchasing a car, to diagnosing an illness, there is a general belief that people can just download a form for any legal need that may arise or plug in some basic information into a blank template to create an instant estate plan.
Estate planning is not just about documents. It is not about filling in a blank. It is really about communication with family, friends and loved ones about your wishes, meeting with an experienced attorney who specializes in issues pertaining to aging, illness and end-of-life, and getting meaningful, helpful advice about what documents need to be in place, specific to each individual’s situation.
Recently, I have seen advertisements online and on Facebook for online Will forms and prepaid legal plans and seminars where people can go and do their will themselves in a group setting. What appears as a cost-saving venture, really can create a nightmare for a family.
Here is a recent example: Fred, a 70 year old retired veteran was recently widowed. His grandson Terry, offered to take Fred to a low-cost seminar at the local senior center where every attendee filled out a fill-in-the-blank will and powers of attorney. The seminar was taught by an attorney and there were 27 attendees in the class. The class was about two hours long. The attorney did not meet with each individual personally, nor ask any in-depth personal questions. Fred left the seminar with a signed and notarized Will, a Medical Durable Power of Attorney and a General Durable Power of Attorney, all naming Terry as agent and personal representative of his estate.
Three months later our office was contact by Fred’s neighbor. He called because he saw our sign and was concerned because he had just been over at Fred’s house and noticed something was amiss.
The neighbor had not seen Fred in a few months and stopped by to say hello. When he went inside the house, he noticed the house was a mess, and there were dirty dishes all over the kitchen. The neighbor thought this was odd, because Fred and his wife had been immaculate housekeepers. When the neighbor suggested they have coffee on the porch, Fred’s grandson appeared from the basement. Fred seemed very distracted so the neighbor then asked Fred to come next door to his house to help him with a project.
When the neighbor left the house with Fred, he noticed Fred seemed distracted and had lost a lot of weight since he last saw him. He offered Fred a snack and some coffee and as they spoke the neighbor learned that since Velma, his wife had passed, their grandson, Terry, had moved in to help him.
However, Fred seemed concerned because he said he was worried, as he had recently done his Will and powers of attorney and now Terry had him sign over some papers adding Terry to the title of his house and his car. Terry said that it was a good idea since Fred was getting his affairs in order it was also a good time to do this to “keep the government out of Fred’s business.”
Fortunately, the neighbor, a retired school teacher, became concerned and asked Fred if he was doing okay, getting enough to eat and sleep and how he was doing with his finances. Fred said he wasn’t sure how his finances were because Terry was paying all his bills using his power of attorney.
After Fred went home, the neighbor called our office. He then called Fred and encouraged him to come see us to review the documents he had signed at the seminar. Needless to say, we discovered Terry had taken full control of Fred’s financial world.
In the end, it was discovered Terry had helped himself to over $50,000 of Fred and Velma’s hard-earned retirement funds and had managed to get Fred to sign his home and car over to Terry. The documents Fred filled out that day at the seminar did not in fact leave Fred’s estate to his disabled granddaughter, as he had intended, but instead to Terry.
Once we were able to sort this all out with Fred, we encouraged him to evict Terry, which he did. Terry was eventually charged with a felony, for theft from an at-risk adult.
The moral of this story is simple. People do not go to attorneys to fill out a form. They go to attorneys for guidance, advice and a plan. This case was a perfect example of why someone should not do fill-in-the-blank estate planning or in a group format. Fred did not fully understand what he was signing, what power he was giving to Terry, and the plan that was created did not do special needs planning for Fred’s granddaughter. Instead, it gave an unemployed grandson who felt very entitled, the opportunity to take advantage of his grandfather financially. Fred receiving no individual advice or counseling about his individual situation. Had this occurred, possibly this theft and financial exploitation could have been avoided.
The old adage rings true. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Or if something feels too easy to accomplish, there is probably a reason for this. Whereas it may have cost Fred upwards of $2000 to create a very sound estate plan that would have met his needs and planned for his disabled granddaughter, failing to plan cost him $50,000, ownership of his home, and a lot of legal fees and stress to clean up the mess once it was discovered what had occurred.
When in doubt, the assistance of qualified professionals is very valuable.