Recently, a young mother told me, “We haven’t done our estate planning because we don’t have an estate. All we have is a house with a mortgage, two cars with loans and very little in the bank.” She thought that was the extent of her “estate,” and saw no need to spend the time or money to create a plan for it.
Her attitude is not uncommon. To many, “estate planning” simply means having a Will that dictates who receives their things. But an “estate” includes more than your things, and “planning” involves more than deciding where those things go when you die.
Terry Schiavo’s experience is an important example. In 1990, Ms. Schiavo collapsed and was left in a persistent vegetative state. Her parents fought her husband’s attempt to have Ms. Schiavo taken off of life support. Both sides were adamant they knew what Ms. Schiavo would have wanted.
The ensuing 15 year battle was tragic by any definition. The fight started with a lawsuit filed in Florida’s state court. Five additional lawsuits were filed in in federal court. From this, fourteen appeals were filed. The Florida legislature weighed in enacting a law that the Florida Supreme Court struck down. Congress also passed a law intended to keep Ms. Schiavo alive, which President Bush signed after returning early from vacation. Ms. Schiavo finally passed away on March 31, 2005 after her feeding tube was removed.
Even if Ms. Schiavo had a Will, it would have done nothing to address (or avoid) what happened. Yet, the entire fight could have been avoided had Ms. Schiavo signed a Living Will, a document that should be part of every estate plan.
A proper estate plan should address more than what happens to your things when you die. It should also address what happens to you (and your things) if you become incapacitated or must deal with other complications of life.
As we learned from Ms. Schiavo’s experience, everyone has an estate plan. The real question is whether your estate plan is one you choose or one that is chosen for you. It is a safe bet that Ms. Schiavo’s choice would not have been to create a national, acrimonious battle embroiling those she loved most.
© 2015 Steven J Wright