Knowing What to Plan and When to Plan It

Important events require careful planning. For example, what happens to your assets, who will care for your children, will your business survive or will your children be able to protect a legacy asset such as a cottage or vacation property in the event of your incapacity or death all involve critical decisions. Planning "in time" does not necessarily mean that the planning is "on time." Any ambulance driver will tell you that lying on a stretcher on your way to the hospital is not the time to begin working on your estate plan or business succession plan. On a number of occasions, the importance of timely planning has been dramatically presented to me. In each situation, clients with entirely different types of estates and needs had one thing in common, they waited to plan until it was almost too late. Sometimes the risk of delayed planning "on time" becomes "in time".

Each of these examples involve critical decisions and require careful planning.

One such client was a mother of two minor children, a business owner and estranged from her husband who suffered from a substance abuse problem. In this article, I will give her the assumed name of Sarah. Sarah cared for her children on a full-time basis, was the sole means of financial support and was self-employed in her own business. Tragically, Sarah was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. She was losing a valiant battle with her illness and had been hospitalized on several occasions prior to the day we met at my office. A mutual friend suggested Sarah contact me to develop and establish an estate plan and business succession plan to protect Sarah, her children and to preserve her business that employed several people.

I first met Sarah on a Thursday morning. She came to my office in a wheelchair accompanied by her sister. This same sister was also caring for Sarah and her children during Sarah's illness.

After listening to Sarah's explanation of her situation, I recommended to Sarah that she establish an estate plan to protect Sarah's assets, provide for the appointment of her sister as Sarah's children's legal guardian and adopt a succession plan for her business to give a key employee the chance to purchase the business in the event of Sarah's death. This planning would insure that Sarah's assets would not be subject to a claim by her estranged, addicted husband, and that the assets be managed and support her children so that their lives, as much as possible in her absence, would remain stable and financially supported into the future. The business succession plan, notably, provided additional proceeds to be paid over time to support Sarah's children, but also protected the jobs of her employees who relied on Sarah's business to support their families.

I copied and collected all the information I needed from Sarah to draft her estate and business plan documents. I advised Sarah that although the process of completing these plans typically can take weeks or even months, given her declining health, I would draft her documents right away. I sked if she could return the following day to review and sign her plans. Sarah responded that she might not live to sign the planning documents the next day. Based on my observations of Sarah during the initial part of our meeting, I had no reason to doubt that possibility.

Together with my staff, I proceeded to prepare her estate and business succession plans for her signature that day. We also coordinated with her financial advisor the transfer of assets into a Trust created by Sarah for her children's benefit. It was quite an emotional day. My staff and I raced against each precious moment that passed to consolidate Sarah's planning process into one day. Sadly, Sarah died the next day. Fortunately, Sarah's plan continues to govern and support her children and business as well.

During the span of my career, I've drafted estate and business plans solving various issues for clients to avoid significant problems. I have reviewed and obtained signatures in critical care units of hospitals, nursing home rooms and literally, in one case, we obtained a client's signature on his estate planning documents while walking beside his hospital gurney as he was being wheeled to the operating room for emergency heart surgery. While I have many success stories for people who planned "in time", there are extraordinary risks involved in not planning "on time".

Dan A. Penning