Danville Express

Column - February 23, 2007

Diablo Views: Better to write your will before you die

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

We might hope we will never need a lawyer, or an oncologist or several other professionals. But the truth is we all need someone to help us plan what will happen to our possessions when we die.

I had lunch last week with Sarah Nix, an attorney who does estate planning as an associate at the law firm of Gagen, McCoy, Koss, Markowitz & Raines on Front Street.

"I can't tell you the number of times people say it's on their list of things to do, but it's No. 12," Sarah said.

She also hears a lot, after people have met with her to set their estates in order, "I actually slept better last night."

Of course parents with little children have the most at stake. They need to leave legal instructions as to the little ones' guardianship if anything should happen to them. Sarah has spoken to groups of parents with young children. She and her husband live in Danville with their two little girls, ages 28 and 10 months, and she is a member of the Iron Horse Mothers Club.

"Everyone should, at the very least, have a simple will. You can name guardians for minor children in your will," Sarah explained. A will can direct who receives the assets in your estate, such as property, bank accounts and personal possessions.

Any estate with assets over $100,000 has to be probated. This usually takes nine months, but the worst part is the cost. Fees are based on the dollar value of assets. So a house worth $1 million - and most around here are worth at least that - would cause its fees to be based on $1 million even if the house is practically all mortgaged. Fees on a $1 million estate would run $46,000.

If people have their assets in a trust, probate is avoided entirely, Sarah pointed out. The administration is brief and not costly and a good estate plan can help minimize estate taxes.

Sarah said her goal is to make it easier for people when their loved ones die, and this includes leaving clear instructions. Do they want to be cremated? Do they want their organs donated? She said these questions often cause couples to surprise each other with their reactions.

"When I bring up organ donations, the woman might say, 'I don't want you to be picked apart,'" Sarah said. One person will assume cremation is the way to go while the partner might be shocked at the thought. People have strong feelings on these subjects, Sarah has found, and they often have not discussed them.

The cost runs $3,000-$3,500 for complete estate planning for a couple, which includes two wills, a trust, two advance health care directives, and two durable powers of attorney. The planning includes deeding real property into the trust and completing beneficiary forms for life insurance and retirement plans. It also means planning the estate according to each family's individual situation.

Clients first make an appointment and fill out a form. Then they meet with Sarah for several hours to go over their personal information. At that time, they also make an appointment for a date to return in four to six weeks for a signing session.

Sarah mails the clients a draft of the document early on so they can look it over. When they meet again, they discuss any questions. "We go over it asset by asset to make sure they have covered everything," Sarah said. Then they sign the document with a Notary.

Sarah grew up in Millbrae. After graduating from UC Davis in Communication and English, she went to work at the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office in its family support division. Much of the work was heartbreaking, she said, but she learned how to deal with people in stressful situations. She also found it satisfying to work with families on legal issues.

She studied law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco while working at an estate planning and tax firm. Before joining Gagen McCoy, she worked as an estate planning and business attorney in San Francisco. But when she heard about the local opening, she acted on it, going on the job interview just nine days after her first baby was born.

Sarah will be giving a free presentation on estate planning at 6 p.m., Wednesday, March 21, at Tony LaRussa's Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek. To register, call Sarah at 837-0585 or e-mail snix@gagenmccoy.com. It could be your first step to sleeping better at night.

-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.


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