Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Estate Planning with Mama V: What Every Parent Needs to Know!!

I was about 4 months pregnant and flying in one of those tiny single-engine planes on my way to a Native American Indian Reservation in Northern California on a work trip.  We hit an air pocket and the plane dropped several feet.  Other people cried out.  I gripped the armrest with one hand and my baby belly with the other.  That was the moment it occurred to me that I was going to be a parent.

What I mean is, that’s when it became clear that not only would I have to take good care of me and make sure I stuck around as long as possible, but also that I would really be, forever, responsible for another actual person.  As the plane bobbed around a bit too much for comfort, I found myself daydreaming and imaging who my baby might someday be.  Suddenly I wasn’t just envisioning the little Gerber baby I couldn’t wait to snuggle, but I was seeing a school-aged child, a teenager, and even a young adult.  I felt heavier, not just because I was in fact getting heavier by the day.

I felt the weight of that responsibility and I knew I had to do something about it.  When I returned to our condo in downtown Washington, DC from that business trip I told my husband that we needed to “do our Wills.”  Both of us being lawyers, we thought, “how hard can this be?”  So I set about drafting them for us with some sample forms from some Continuing Legal Education course offered by the local Bar Association.  Then, I confess now to you publicly, I set it all aside…for 3 years.

The problems we had completing our estate plan were no different from many other young parents’.  First of all for us, we could not talk about it well.  The topic of estate planning, being inherently loaded with thoughts of death and dying, can be, well, a real bummer.  And hormones and depressing topics do not mix well!  Ever.  We also disagreed about a fundamental choice and without an experienced professional guiding us through those very difficult choices we were lost and basically just never made a choice at all. 

The second reason for our three-year delay in completing our estate plan was… um… life just got in the way I guess.  We were busy.  We both changed career paths.  We sold our condo in DC and moved back to Boston.  We looked for a place to buy while subletting then rented somewhere else.  We checked out new neighborhoods and met new friends while adjusting to new jobs and our new life as parents.  And just when we started to settle into things, we were expecting our second baby.  Suddenly my motherly urges kicked into high gear and we were back to searching for a more long-term nest for our young family. 

We moved again just in time to welcome Baby #2, padded our new nest a bit, adjusted somewhat to life as a family of four, and finally many months later enjoyed more than four hours consolidated sleep again.  That’s when we met some new friends out for dinner and drinks, and it was on the way home that night that I remembered: we had never completed our Wills.  By then we had two children and a house full of stuff and we had absolutely nothing in place.  It was an awful feeling.

The third reason it took us so long is that we didn’t know whom to trust or how much it would cost us to get professional help from an estate planning attorney.  But after that night I just asked some friends for a recommendation.  Then we finally hired an attorney to “do our Wills” once and for all.  We signed our Wills, I signed a check, and I crossed that off our list and breathed a sigh of relief.  At least until I later started my own law practice and some friends asked me to do their Wills.  When I dove into estate planning as a new practice area I quickly realized how much more there was to it and how unprotected my family and children really were.  I knew there had to be a better way so I set about figuring out what it was.  By the time I celebrated my first year in solo practice on the same day I gave birth to my third daughter, I knew I’d found that better way and was really making a profound difference in my clients’ lives.

My approach to estate planning is a little unusual as I cater to parents of young children especially and my focus is, as most parents’ is too, on the children as the primary motivating factor and number one consideration.  Sure, estate taxes are important, but it’s the immediate, temporary, disability and other emergency planning I do around the children that are paramount.  A Will only comes into play after you die, so there are a lot more pieces that are actually more urgently important to an estate plan for young, healthy parents of very young children.

I wrote this in the hopes that it will motivate the vast majority of you who, like I was, are young, healthy, new parents who spend countless hours researching the safest car seats and strollers, daycares and babysitters, making organic baby food from scratch, and reading book after book about sleep and potty-training, but have not yet taken the critically important step of legally protecting your babies. 

For some more basic information, I invite you to check out my blog at: http://dgvelaw.blogspot.com/, and my Facebook Page at: http://www.facebook.com/DGVElawLLC.  If you have generic questions, please don’t hesitate to post them here or email me directly: dgve@dgvelaw.com, but please be advised that none of this constitutes an attorney-client relationship.  I only practice in Massachusetts but would be happy to refer you to a colleague of mine where you are.

I wish you and your family the very best of health and happiness.

Danielle G. Van Ess


  1. I had a great time reading through your blog. Sometimes it's not good an excuse to just say that "life just happened" to miss on the other more important aspects of life--like setting up wills and trusts. Thank you for shedding light into this very important matter that I am currently at a distressed at myself at the moment.