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Protecting Your Children in the Event of a Devastating Loss

Jennifer Hargrave recently spoke with David Feakes, of The Parents Estate Planning Law Firm, PC located in Boston, to discuss something no parent wants to go through: a devastating loss.

As parents, we love our children. We will do anything for our children, they are our number one priority. But the one thing that most parents don’t do is actually protect their children in the event of a devastating loss. David has a really important message to share with parents about why estate planning is so critical and what they need to do in order to protect their families. David’s mission comes from his own life experience and he knows why planning is so critical for parents with young children.


David Feakes:

Hi Jennifer. It’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Jennifer Hargrave:

Absolutely. Well, I wanted to start off by asking you, where does this passion come from for you? What really is driving your mission to make sure that parents have proper estate planning in place?

Estate Planning for Young Families is important

David Feakes:

Our firm is all about estate planning and primarily for families with young kids. And for a really long time I thought that the reason I was drawn to estate planning for young families was because when I started I was the father of young children, my wife and I had young kids. And I imagined that the reason this felt so right for me was because young families were like me. It was not until later that I truly discovered that the reason I felt drawn to this, really what I discovered why this work is my purpose was because of experiences that I had as a child myself. That’s what estate planning being all about, especially estate planning for young families, being all about protecting kids and making sure that they’ve got a bright future even in a potentially dark time. And knowing that my own experience as a child was not always that I felt loved or protected or cared for, particularly with respect to my father, who I did not feel loved by, I did not feel cared for by, and certainly didn’t feel protected by.

That really is why I came to estate planning for young families was a way to make sure that there were not children who looked around at some point in their lives and felt the way I felt when I was a child. That I would always want children to know that they felt loved and were cared for and were protected by their parents. And for me, one of the most tangible pieces of evidence of that love and that care and that protection is a well crafted estate plan that makes sure that kids are protected no matter what.

Jennifer Hargrave:

It’s so important and yet I think as parents, it’s something we so easily avoid thinking about or talking about or planning for. When it is so important because you’ve seen… I’m going to ask you if you have some stories to share with us, but you’ve seen what happens when parents don’t put the planning in place and then the unthinkable happens. And in your experience, why do you think parents are so reticent or I mean they just don’t do the proper planning for their children?

Addressing hard truths is the best protection

David Feakes:

Statistics show that probably around 70% of families don’t have an estate plan in place probably. That covers not only young families but older families as well, probably the majority of that 70%, is families with young kids. The reason they don’t plan, I think there are a few reasons. Number one, you’re young, you think nothing’s going to happen to you. I mean, we just don’t imagine that something is going to happen to us when we’re young. We all imagine ourselves living long lives. And so that’s number one. It’s the same reason why parents don’t have enough life insurance or don’t have enough financial savings because they think there’s plenty of time out ahead of them.

Number two, it’s because it’s not a happy topic to visit. You’ve got to face death when you’re talking about estate planning. But I think really the reason why parents of young kids particularly shy away from estate planning is the fear from imagining their children’s lives without parents in it. In other words, if you are a parent, estate planning by necessity requires you to sit down and think about your child’s life or lives without you as a part of it. And I think that’s terrifying for a lot of parents. And that fear just stops them in their tracks. One of the things of course, that we’re always making sure that we are helping our clients with how we’re guiding them through the process is to really make this as easy as possible. But I think a lot of families imagine estate planning to be a very difficult or complicated process when it should not be and certainly does not have to.

Jennifer Hargrave:

Exactly. One of the things I think is so important is for parents to really realize that having the plan in place is like carrying the umbrella on a day when it may or may not rain. At least you’ve got that protection there and how much better they’ll be able to sleep at night. I mean, I think for parents who don’t have any planning in place, you know it’s running in the back of your head. You know it’s something you should be doing to protect your children and you know you don’t have it. And I think for parents who do put the proper estate planning in place, it does bring such peace. How does proper planning protect the child? And I think maybe a way to talk about it is, how does lack of planning hurt a child? The most important question to address is how does estate planning protect from devastating loss

David Feakes:

Well, here’s how lack of planning can hurt a child. Number one, if you haven’t created a plan, then essentially a default plan takes over. And the default plan doesn’t include in it anything that you necessarily want for your kids and who’s going to take care of your kids. Ultimately, that’s going to be left up to a judge, a probate court judge who doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your family, doesn’t know what’s important to you or what’s most important to you, doesn’t know who you would choose because you’re not there now to say it anymore. And for many families, as important, that judge can’t know who you would not want as the guardians of your kids. So what can happen is that sometimes the person you don’t want to take care of your kids is the person who’s actually standing in front of a judge having filed a petition to be named the guardian of your children.

And for lots of clients that I work with, and by the way, this was true in my own estate plan because my father did not know my children and did not have any relationship with my children and he was not someone I would ever want to be the guardian of my kids. I had to take formal steps to exclude him while he was still living and while my kids were minors. And that’s work we do with a lot of our clients because they have a family member, a parent, a sibling that they know they don’t want to be the guardian who they’re afraid may challenge that decision in court. And if there’s no plan in place, again, a judge can’t know any of this. Judge is doing the best that they can, is always trying to make decisions in the best interest of your children, but they don’t have that roadmap to follow from you. And that’s essentially what guardianship planning is all about.

The guardianship pieces of an estate plan is the way for you to leave a roadmap for a judge to follow so that they can appoint the right people, the people that you want, the people that you know would care for and love and raise your kids as close to the way that you would if you were still there. And in the absence of planning, that doesn’t always happen the way you would want it to.

Jennifer Hargrave:

What are the elements of a good estate plan? And I know you’re in Massachusetts, so it’s going to be different in Texas, it’s going to be different across the different state lines. So people definitely need to be visiting with an estate planning attorney in their own area. But as a professional in this area, what are some of the elements? What’s a good framework for thinking about what a good estate plan needs to have in place to protect children?

What are the right ingredients to an estate plan?

David Feakes:

Right. I would say there’s four basic ingredients of a good comprehensive estate plan, especially when you have minor children. And this would be true, these elements will be the same whether you live in Massachusetts, whether you live in Texas, whether you live in California or Florida or wherever you live. The elements are pretty much the same. How you go about it, document by document, will vary in different jurisdictions, but the elements are the same. Number one for minor children is creating a plan for your kids, creating a plan for your children. And that means naming guardians for them. And most people think about guardianship in a longterm way. In other words, if I die, who do I want to care for and love and raise my kids until they’re 18, which is when they’re adults and they no longer need a formal legal guardian.

Another thing to be thinking about is if my guardians don’t live near me, I need to name short-term guardians or people who do live near me. Think about friends, think about neighbors who can step in and take care of my kids until my longterm guardians can arrive and take over. But number one is creating that plan for who’s going to take care of your kids if something happens to you in an emergency, if you are not there and you can’t take care of them. That’s number one.

Number two is creating a plan around money. Minor children can’t manage their own money. Minor children cannot inherit directly from you. And so you need to think about who’s going to manage that money for them until they’re old enough to receive it directly. You need to be thinking about how and when and under what circumstances you do want them to be receiving it directly once they turn, at least age 18. Do you want to wait until they’re 25? Do you want to wait until they’re 30? Do you want to protect that money even as they become adults? So you want to think about who’s going to manage it. You want to make sure that there is enough money for your kids if you die and you leave minor children behind.

Creating a financial burden for your guardians is not something you want to do. So you want to make sure that not only is there a plan for who’s going to manage the money for your kids and take care of what they need, but to make sure that there are enough resources so that your kids get what you would want them to have. Do you have enough life insurance? Do you have enough savings? And what do you want to share with your family members? Or who’s going to manage this money for your kids about how you want them to use those resources for your kids? What’s important to you? What experiences do you want your kids to have? Do you want your kids to be able to travel? Do you want your kids to go to any college or university that they want to with costs not a factor or really do you want them… What’s most important? So that’s a plan for money, that’s number two.

Number three, and this is really important one. People overlook it and don’t think about it when they’re thinking about how to plan for their kids. And that’s really a plan for yourself or what we would say is a plan for incapacity. What happens if you don’t die? Making sure that there’s a plan for if you get sick, if you are disabled, if you’re incapacitated, if you can’t make decisions for yourself, that there’s someone who can step in and take care of you because if you can’t… Because self-care is the first step in caring for others who are dependent upon you. So making sure somebody can make healthcare decisions for you, making sure somebody can make legal or financial decisions for you if you can’t make those decisions for yourself.

And then the fourth part of the planning, and this is not typical, this is not traditional and that’s what I call a plan for legacy. Because what I’ve recognized over time is that what shows up in paper and ink in the documents of an estate plan is an important part of that plan, but it’s not the whole plan because all of us walk around with things inside of us that we want to express in some way. We have stories, we have memories, we have guidance, we have advice that we want to pass on to our kids, or maybe to the people who take care of our kids, or maybe to the people who are going to manage the money for our kids. Things that are important to us that if we don’t share them in some way, will stay locked up inside of us and if we die, they’re lost forever.

In our firm, all of our clients have the opportunity to participate in what we call our legacy interview. After documents are signed and the formal legal part of the plan is in place, I get back together with clients and I interview my clients. All the attorneys in our office do this as well. And it’s a way for us to record in an audio recording. You could do it in the video recording. Zoom makes this super easy. It’s just a way to record an interview with me, drawing out of the clients what’s most important to them, to talk about their kids, what they love about their kids, what makes them proud to be the parents of those children, who they’ve named as guardians, why they’ve named those people, what’s important about money and education. And what holidays are most important and what traditions are important that parents would want guardians to continue with kids. But mostly it’s a way for children to hear from their parents in their parents’ own voice, even if and after something happens to mom or dad or mom and mom or dad and dad. Just a way to hear, again, parents talking to them about what’s most important.

Anybody who’s listening to this, if you think for a moment about somebody who is no longer in your life but who you wish you could hear their voice again, just talking to you, telling their stories just in any way and how important and impactful that would be for you, that’s why the legacy interview is so important. And in my own life I have some of those recordings and in some places I don’t have those recordings and would literally almost give anything to have them but just don’t. And so that’s the last piece that we do with all of our clients. Is that plan for legacy because I think that’s a really important and very often overlooked piece of planning for your family.

Jennifer Hargrave:

It’s really a beautiful add-on I think to what you’re doing. And it makes me think, while we’re talking about planning for young children, this is just planning period. So even if your children are not young and they’re grown, what an incredible gift to receive. I know we were really lucky when my mom passed to have many of her legacies, her loves, her passions that she shared with us and that it was documented. But I just think it’s such a critical piece, David. What a beautiful thing that you’re offering to families.

Watch the rest of our conversation on Youtube!