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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Who Are the Adults Here?

Divorce can be messy. It can be ugly, it can be gut-wrenching, and it can be hard. A divorce with a custody battle attached can be any parent's worst nightmare. But there is no reason to make it your child's worst nightmare too.

We have all seen parents who get so wrapped up in being an Ex-Wife or an Ex-Husband that they forget they are parents as well. Our responsibilities as parents do not decrease if a marriage goes awry- those responsibilities actually grow. As a parent going through a divorce, you owe it to your child to be an adult.

Did your parents divorce when you were young? If not, ask a friend: they noticed. Kids notice how their parents behave during a divorce. Pre-teen girls can either learn that all men are untrustworthy, or they can learn that even parents make mistakes. Little boys can be told how to "act like a man," or they can see it for themselves. You cannot control the behavior of your ex-partner. If you could, you might not be divorcing in the first place. But you can control your reaction to them. If you need to yell, do it when the kids absolutely cannot hear you. When they are sleeping, they can still hear you. If you need to get something off your chest, don't put that weight onto your child's shoulders. This is not the time to be a friend to your child, and this is not the time for them to be a friend to you. Get into therapy instead.

Lastly, do not vent about or belittle your ex-partner in front of (or even in the same house as) your child. You are angry, and that is okay. But you need your ex-partner to never become an ex-parent. Your child, whether you are comfortable with it or not, needs a relationship with that parent. Their relationship may not be perfect, and it may even require supervision by the Courts until your child is an adult and can make the decision to terminate that relationship, but in order for your child to continue along the path to adulthood they need role models. Role models like you, whom they can emulate, and maybe even role models for behavior they never want to engage in. But what they need most of all is to know who the adults are here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Trusts: Not Just for Millionaires Anymore

We have all heard of Trust Fund Babies. Maybe we even know one or two. When I was in school, Trustifarians were the most common variety: kids with trust funds who spent it all on their extra-curricular activities. Some people consider these young adults as warnings against setting up trusts for their families, but Trusts can actually be a powerful planning tool both for your money and for the transition of your children and grandchildren to adulthood.

Every family is different, every family member is different, and every trust should be different. If your grandchild is 16 and headed to Harvard next year with a sophomore status, maybe she will be able to handle a large inheritance all at once when she turns 21. Or maybe not: you never know. With a trust fund, you can give the trustee the power to give her money for the specific activities you name, whether they be educational expenses, medical expenses, or travel expenses. Whatever you want.

You can also use a trust to give incentives. Perhaps you really want your child or grandchild to attend graduate school, or travel to Europe, or live in your hometown: you can draft a trust that rewards the behaviors you deem appropriate. Obviously, you need to give the trustee the power to make decisions in grey areas. One possible grey area is an education that does not involve a traditional four-year college. If your child wants to be a chef, do you want her educational trust to provide for that? It can. You can define education (or any other word) yourself, that is part of the beauty of a trust.

A trust enables you to decide that a child gets X amount at age 18, Y amount at age 21, and Z amount after after completing their first marathon. It is your trust, you can make the rules.

A trust can be set up to provide for care of your pets after your death. A trust can provide an education for your neighbor's child. A trust can do almost anything, which is why they are not just for Millionaires any more.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Can I Get a Divorce Without An Attorney?

Of course! The American legal system is set up so those who either do not want or cannot afford an attorney can access the Courts without one. But therein lies the point: a client does not hire an attorney for access, they hire one for information and expertise.

At different times in the process of a Dissolution (commonly called Divorce) there are different approaches that best serve the purpose. In Discovery, a client is best served by a precise and all-encompassing approach to both language and the other party. In settlement negotiations, or in the event of a trial, one might need to flip the switch daily between a pleasant give and take designed to ultimately please both parties and a tough stance on the one issue where you refuse to budge. For two people whose relationship has already come to the edge of Divorce, this can be impossible. Hurt, anger, and resentment often cloud the issues so communications completely down. An attorney can act as a buffer between two lightning rods, while still only being an advocate for one.

Lastly, there are the problems associated with acting as your own counsel. A Dissolution requires hours of time and effort- even for attorneys who do this on a regular basis. Do you have an extra 10-20 hours a week to devote to reading court rules, deciphering case law, and writing documents to be filed? A Pro Se
Dissolution can take valuable time away from your job, children, and life at a juncture when you cannot afford to seem distracted.

Another problem with activing as your own counsel is incompleteness of documents. At Legacy Northwest, we have seen Dissolution Decrees drafted by the parties that failed to deal with numerous vital issues, even including those failing to deal with contingencies for the family home. This can result in two people ending up officially divorced, still jointly owning the family home where one party still lives. Years down the line the parties will have to deal with each other one more time in order to sell, refinances, or quit claim that property.

At Legacy Northwest, we understand why people divorce. We want you to get your fair share of the assets, and your fair share of time with your children- and get out. There is no reason a Dissolution should drag on forever.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

When Will You Get a Round Tuit?

When I was a child my father sold life insurance. Insurance is a lot like a will in that everyone knows they need it, but no one wants to discuss it, much less take steps to make it happen. Because of that, he was often, much like I, relegated to a New Year's Resolution in the lives of his clients.

To counteract this, he kept a supply of Round Tuits on hand. Think about that: A Round Tuit. Whenever a client would tell him that they would purchase life insurance one day when they got around to it, he would reach into his desk drawer and hand them one. It was essentially a wooden nickel, but it said (and I am paraphrasing) "Have something you've been putting off? Now you've got a Round Tuit!"

Despite the kitch-ness of it all, I have often considered purchasing a supply of Round Tuits to keep in my desk. We all have something for which we need a Round Tuit as inspiration. An Estate Plan is something you should definitely get around to, sooner rather than later.

Monday, April 5, 2010

If Not I...

Oftentimes when clients come in the office to have a new estate plan drawn up, they only have one beneficiary in mind.

Maybe the client is married without children and only wants their assets to pass to their spouse upon their death. If both spouses come in at once and request mirror image wills to this effect, legal practitioners refer to these as sweetheart wills.

Maybe the client is a single parent with one child. In that case, they might want all of their assets to transfer to that child upon their passing.

In any case, it is imperative that a client consider the possible consequences of their "all or nothing" decision. What if the spouse designated as beneficiary in a sweetheart will perishes in the same car accident as the client? In a case like this, it might be best for a secondary benefiary to be named.

A secondary beneficiary is exactly what it sounds like: you want A to receive the item or account contents. If not A, then B. If not A or B, then C. And so on. Some attorneys do not name secondary (or contingent) beneficiaries at all, and these wills create a lot of questions. Some attorneys go on, ad nauseum, naming beneficiary after beneficiary for contingency after contingency. After reading one of these clauses, it is enough to make you want to hunt down the attorney and put the language out of it's misery.

Generally, three levels of beneficiary are enough. Unless the named beneficiaries are very elderly, very irresponsible with their lives, or might not want the item being bequeathed to them: undisclosed "gifts" of problem animals should probably have more levels of beneficiaries- and come with a sizable cash endowment to care for said animals.

These same concerns can be had when naming caretakers for small children. Not to compare children to animals, of course, but just because your parents raised you well does not mean that they will be around long enough to raise your children too. But that can of worms shall be left for another day.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Importance of Honesty

Divorce can feel like a weight being lifted from your shoulders, or it can feel like a hammer coming down on your head. One determining factor between the two extremes is the relationship between you and your attorney. A good relationship makes everything easier, both because your attorney understands you and your priorities and because you understand exactly what your attorney wants from you.

The main thing your attorney truly needs from you is honesty. Divorce can be ugly, and so can the relationship that leads to it. Your attorney understands that, and will not judge you. At Legacy Northwest, we have seen situations where our clients have been wrong- and situations where they have been wronged. Either way, we need you to be honest with us up front. If you have made mistakes in the past we need to know in order to protect you. If you went through a period of heavy drinking or drug abuse but received treatment and changed your ways- we need to know. If you have a criminal history that is related or even unrelated to your marriage- we need to know. If there is anything your spouse might bring up to damage your character and reputation in a custody battle: financial indiscretions, incidents with or around the children, or any other issues under the sun- we need to know. The best way we can protect you from an attack is to make a plan in advance of its occurence. The only way we can know everything is if you tell us everything.

The main thing you need from your attorney is knowledge. At Legacy Northwest, we consider it of utmost importance to give our clients as much information as possible up front. While we may not have all the specifics about your case at the initial free consultation, we can often give you a general overview of the legal situation you encounter. Every situation is different, of course, but it can give you real peace of mind to know what the general flow of events will be from day one. We deal with divorce on a regular basis, whereas you will probably only deal with divorce this one time. We will provide you with information as to the timing, procedures, and costs of your dissolution. Honest answers both from you and from your attorney- one more way for Legacy Northwest to protect your legacy.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

We want Prenup! We want Prenup!

Most of my clients and a great many of the people I talk with outside of my professional capacity seem to believe that a Prenup (otherwise known as a Prenuptial Agreement or, if executed after the marriage, a Post Nuptial Agreement) is something that only comes into play after they accumulate vast amounts of money. That is most definitely not the case.

A Prenup can be a fantastic tool for any relationship, even with parties who have very few assets to speak of. This often maligned document simply states the rules of the game up front. It can divide property, provide for spousal maintenance, or include "punishment" provisions for if one partner does not keep to the agreement, such as those sometimes mentioned for marital infidelity.

There was a time when Courts simply ignored Prenups, believing they were a corruption of the ideals of marriage. In the modern age, the Court tends to take a more pragmatic approach if both parties were represented by counsel when the Prenup was negotiated and there was no undue pressure on one party to sign. For instance, if you want a Prenup- don't ask your future spouse to sign on your wedding day.

If the relationship does come to an end, the Court still has the ability to divide property as they see fit. But a Prenup can give the Court a high level of certainty as to what the parties intended at the outset of the relationship, and whether the rules of the game have been arbitrarily changed for the benefit of one party over another.