John Lennon said prophetically, “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.” Unfortunately for John and the rest of us, death happens, too. Except we don’t always plan for it.
Dana certainly didn’t. While skiing this past winter with a newfound love and everything to live for, this seemingly healthy woman in her 40s had a sudden stroke and died the next day. Just like that. Here one moment, gone the next. She left behind shocked and grief-stricken friends . . . and an unsettled estate for her estranged family to fight over.
While our own death is unthinkable, we must face this grave reality, sooner than later—especially if we have children. Who will care for them and secure their future in our absence? For married couples, the answer is a little easier. If one spouse dies, childrearing automatically defaults to the other, bolstered in most cases by life insurance.
But with single parents, it’s a little more complex. Sometimes the other parent is unfit, emotionally or financially—perhaps not the best guardian for your children, but with no other safeguards in place, the one legally responsible for raising them. And what if you’re a widow or widower who dies? Who will take care of your children then?
I’m fortunate in a big way. My ex is a good father, with a stable income, who loves his children. Should I die, they’d be in good hands. However, I would be doing backflips in my grave if my assets, for which I’ve worked so hard to build after our divorce, were in his hands, also, as the de facto custodian of our daughters—my beneficiaries.
That realization, alone, drove me to draw up a living trust—the smartest $1,200 I’ve ever spent. Now I have control, beyond the grave, over who will be the guardian of my estate and how my assets will be distributed to my children.
What about a will? Not the best option, says Leslie Duff, an estate planning attorney who handled my trust. “A will can only go into effect after you die and must pass through probate court first.”
Probate is expensive and time-consuming. It can take up to two years to settle an estate in probate, and it gets eaten up by legal fees. “A trust manages property for you while you are alive, more easily transfers your assets to beneficiaries after death, avoids the time and expense of probate, and is private. More important than anything, you name the guardian. Not the court,” explains Duff.
It gets especially tricky for Native Americans to draw up living trusts or wills because of tribal interests in land ownership and ongoing streams of income from other tribal interests, such as gaming. Make sure you hire a lawyer who is well-versed in the American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA) and how it will affect your descendants.
While you can’t cheat death, you can certainly plan for it. And once you’ve secured the future for your loved ones, then surely you’ll be able to rest in peace.
Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. This single mom plans on being around for a long time. She can be reached at: Boatfolk@aol.com.