In law enforcement, we have many tools at our disposal: guns, knives, tasers, pepper spray, handcuffs and batons. But we also have one additional significant tool at our ready our imagination. We don t want to stop imagining scenarios; we re taught early in law enforcement that the job requires mental preparation. We can prepare ourselves by continually developing what if scenarios, such as, What if the suspect doesn t pull his vehicle over right away? What if the suspects take off on foot after they stop their vehicle? What if the suspect fights when I go to handcuff him?
Playing the what-if game prepares you mentally and tactically to have a Plan A and B to face dangerous incidents by predicting victorious outcomes for the good guys. Although this what-if game is a useful training tool, it never allows us to go beyond the finales that aren t so successful.
The reality is, though, the business of law enforcement is a dangerous occupation. And so is life. Neither is scripted, and when all is said and done, no one makes it out alive.
No one ever wants to imagine dying, which is one reason why the majority of adult Americans don t have an estate plan. But consider this: An estate plan allows you to direct how and to whom your property will be distributed upon your disability or death, and names a personal representative for asset management and a guardian for your children.
Let s challenge some what-if scenarios in which you end up incapacitated or deceased:
1. Imagine you re married with minor kids at home. What if you re on duty in a marked black and white vehicle, parked on the side of the road and just finishing up a report, when all of a sudden you get rear-ended? The collision leaves you disabled/mentally incapacitated.
2. Imagine in the same scenario, the collision kills you.
3. You re married with minor kids at home. You have a relative to watch the kids for the weekend while you and your spouse take a much-needed adult vacation. What if on the drive to your destination, you get in a traffic accident in which both of you die?
An estate plan provides the answers to these questions and other related questions. If you don t have an estate plan prepared when you die, your property could be distributed without regard to your wishes or your family needs.
No More Excuses
People have a natural aversion to thinking about being incapacitated or about dying. Police officers, being valiant types, don t want to visualize a disastrous outcome in what-if scenarios. The basic premise for risk management is if you can predict it, you can prevent or prepare for it. Certainly, death will happen eventually. An estate plan will protect your love ones, safeguard your assets and make sure your final wishes are carried out.
Despite the obvious benefits, there s often uncertainty about where to go to prepare estate documents, but qualified estate planning attorneys are relatively easy to find: You can ask your accountant or your local banker for a referral or contact your local Bar Association.
The presumed high cost of preparing estate planning documents is a natural deterrent. However, the cost of estate planning is actually very reasonable when compared to the expense and stress involved when you don t have an estate plan. If you re serious about doing it yourself, many office supplies stores carry inexpensive estate-planning software. One drawback: Once you ve written your own will or trust, you may not know if you ve done it correctly until it s too late to fix it or clean up ambiguities. If you were injured, you probably wouldn t perform surgery on yourself you d want to have an experienced surgeon do it for you. The same rationale applies to estate planning. You re best off seeking advice from legal, tax, insurance and financial planning professionals, and have your documents drafted by an experienced estate-planning attorney.
As an officer, you re required to be a responsible co-worker, but some people have a nothing-in-it-for-me attitude. If you have a family, you want to have the same consideration as spouse and parent as you would on the job.
A common misunderstanding: Estate planning is only for the rich, and the typical officer does not have enough assets. However, almost everyone who has assets, such as a house, car and retirement fund, need an estate plan. Without one, even your limited assets will be subject to probate, a legal procedure that includes presenting and proving a will, appointing a personal representative, identifying and evaluating assets, notifying creditors, evaluating and paying creditors claims, paying costs of administration and distributing the net estate to beneficiaries, all under court supervision. Probate typically takes eight months or longer, costs thousands of dollars (mostly in attorney s and executor s fees), is administratively burdensome and is a matter of public record. In each state, probate procedures are different. In California, for example, if you die leaving gross assets in your name alone in excess of $100,000, those assets will be subject to probate. A relatively simple living trust that s properly funded can avoid probate altogether.
What Is It?
Estate planning involves identifying your assets and liabilities, establishing a plan of after-death disposition, taking into account federal and state income, capital gains and estate tax consequences, and avoiding probate. A key document in an estate plan is a living trust, which appoints a trustee to administer your assets, directs the disposition of your assets during your lifetime (typically to benefit yourself) and also after death (to provide to your beneficiaries), all without court supervision or public scrutiny. Thus, a well-drafted and properly funded living trust will avoid the time, expense and public record of probate proceedings, and may avoid thousands of dollars of federal estate taxes.
Note: As long as you are competent, your trust may be easily amended as your assets and circumstances change during the course of your life. If you have a living trust with assets properly titled, your trustee can gain almost immediate access to those assets if you re incapacitated or deceased, without having to go to court.
Another valuable document is your will, which names a personal representative for assets standing in your own name at your death, directs the disposition of such assets and nominates a guardian for your minor children if both parents are deceased. (Note that assets left in your name at your death and not held in trust may be subject to court supervision.) The durable power of attorney gives another person the ability to sign documents on your behalf with respect to assets standing in your name, even if you are later incapacitated.
Typically a state form, a health care directive names your health-care agent in case you can t direct the actions of your medical providers. It sets forth your wishes regarding such matters as life support, do-not-resuscitate orders and after-death donation of organs. The directive is sometimes referred to as a power of attorney (for health care) or a living will. There are also trust transfer deeds and assignments, which change the title of the real and personal property to the trustee of the trust (typically yourself).
No one wants to contemplate their own mortality. Nevertheless, as a loving, responsible spouse and parent, take the opportunity to direct and facilitate the management and disposition of your assets. The implementation of an estate plan is a good way to solve many of the what ifs that we face, as law enforcement officer and as citizens. Do the right thing for your loved ones, and do it now.
Randolph, M: The Executor s Guide: Settling a Loved One s Estate or Trust. Nolo Press, 2006.
Schumacher, V: Understanding Living Trusts. Schumacher Publishing Inc, 2003.
Deputy Dan Jordan has more than 22 years with the Los Angeles Sheriff s Department and is also an author, magician and motivational speaker. Contact him through www.firstrespondersbook.com or www.infomagic.biz.
Jerry Kessler, attorney at law, has more than 40 years experience in trusts, wills and probate. Contact him at Angeles Law Center at 661/255-1001 or email@example.com.