By Jeff Wagoner, W M Law President
I attended a continuing legal education seminar a couple of weeks ago. There were some very good speakers and some very good topics, but one speaker really caught my attention. It wasn’t because he was a particularly good speaker or that he had great information for us. It was because he shared a very personal story about heartbreak and turmoil in his own life.
When he was a child, his family was in an horrific automobile accident. It killed his mother, father and one of his siblings. He was very young at the time, about 5 years old. His younger sister, about 3 at the time, also survived the accident. Unfortunately, his parents did not have an estate plan of any kind. Luckily, well sort of, he had family on both his mother’s and father’s sides of the family that could care for him and his sister. The problem was that the family could not agree on who would be the best to take care of the 2 surviving children. So, a court case was opened to allow a judge to make that decision.
The judge temporarily placed the children with one set of grandparents, but this was just a temporary placement that was subject to review every 6 months or year. So, every 6 months or year, the children would be taken back to court to visit with the judge. The judge didn’t move them around much – they were pretty much left with the same guardians until they were no longer minors.
However, because there was never a permanent placement, the children never knew if they would stay in the current home or if they would be moved to a new home. Thankfully, the children were never separated, either. However, the judge could have placed one child with one guardian (say the paternal grandparents) and the other child with a different guardian (for example, the maternal grandparents). And of course this situation created a rift between the families of the deceased parents.
There were no “bad guys” in this situation. The judge did the best he could. Both sides of the family wanted to care for the children, and presumably there were several good options for caretakers. But, the children grew up under a cloud of uncertainty, and the families experienced the unpleasant strife of a custody battle that lasted for well over a decade. All of this could have been avoided with the most basic of estate plans.
So, consider this family’s story and ask yourself, “what’s going to happen if the unthinkable happens?”