When tragedy falls, my phone rings. A helicopter flying Kobe Bryant and eight others crashes, and people call me. I am not a first responder, a pastor, or a crisis manager. I am not family or friend. I am just a trusts and estates attorney.
Everyone knows you need a last will and testament regardless of your familial, marital, or financial situation. Jumpstarting the process, however, is often difficult as we do not want to contemplate our mortality. Disaster, whether a car crash, illness, or crime, is the (im)perfect impetus to take care of our affairs.
The images of fiery aircraft against the beautiful California terrain are enough to make anyone sick, scared, and depressed. The follow-up images of icon Kobe Bryant, hugging his now-deceased 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, are heart-wrenching. The interviews of Matt Mauser who together with his three young children just lost his wife and their mother, Christina, are distressing. We are human, we cannot help but hypothesize as to what would happen if we were in the helicopter, or more likely, the car, the crosswalk, or the hospital. What would our families do if we passed away? Would they have enough money? Would they have enough direction?
Kobe left behind a wife and three daughters. As a professional, his case is excruciating to review as it also involves the death and estate of minors, something no parent should ever have to address. As more details emerge, we will see what kind of estate plan Kobe Bryant established, given his large family and enormous wealth. For his spouse, it is crucial for her to review her own estate plan as she proceeds in life as a single parent. Additionally, Kobe’s estate representative may wish to investigate whether there are any legal causes of action that have arisen from the crash.
A last will and testament dictates who controls your estate when you die. If you are over the age of 18, it is imperative that you execute a will and testament. If you die without one, your home state will determine who gets your assets based on its laws of intestacy. This means that if you do not have a spouse or children, parents or siblings, more remote relatives may receive. I have witnessed on more than one occasion, the distribution of an estate to distant cousins who had no relationship with the decedent, but received his assets because he died without a last will and testament, and they were his closest relatives according to the probate law.
Additionally, for parents, guardians of children are nominated under a last will and testament. If you do not specify your choice, the local court will decide. Without stating your wishes, a probate judge may select an individual who does not share your parenting values or worse, whom you do not like. You may not think your mother-in-law would make a good guardian, but a judge may disagree. Last wills are also excellent vehicles to deal with estate tax issues, should your assets rise to that level.
To round out an estate plan, a power of attorney and health care proxy must also be executed. A power of attorney appoints an agent to control financial decisions while you are alive but incapacitated. A health care proxy appoints an agent to control medical decisions if you are unable to voice your wishes.
Admittedly illness, incapacity, and death are difficult to talk about. Executing an estate plan must be high on your adulting list alongside annual physical and dental exams and financial planning. The good news is that once you complete estate planning, you likely do not need to repeat the process for a while, although it is important to review it from time and time. Completing an estate plan, which means actually signing the documents, also provides peace of mind, so that when tragedy, close or remote, strikes, there is no need to call me in a panic.
Cori A. Robinson is a solo practitioner having founded Cori A. Robinson PLLC, a New York and New Jersey law firm, in 2017. For more than a decade Cori has focused her law practice on trusts and estates and elder law including estate and Medicaid planning, probate and administration, estate litigation, and guardianships. She can be reached at [email protected]