The days of working for a single employer for decades until you retire are over. Today, you are much more likely to change jobs multiple times during your career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s workers have held an average of 12 jobs by the time they reach their 50s.

Since people change jobs so frequently, it is easy to see you might lose track of an old 401(k) or retirement account, especially if you only worked in a position for a short time. In fact, forgetting plans is quite common: it’s estimated that roughly 900,000 workers lose track of their 401(k) plans each year. And when you forget to cash out your 401(k) upon leaving a job, your former employer might no longer have control of your account.

Even if the company you worked for is still up and running, businesses terminate 401(k) plans all the time, especially during economic downturns. The company is required by law to contact you if they terminate the plan, but if they can’t locate you, the money can be transferred to a bank, rolled into an IRA, or even sent to the state’s unclaimed property fund.

If you’re looking to increase your retirement savings, one way to start is to make sure you haven’t lost or forgotten about any old accounts. Here are 6 tips for tracking down a missing 401(k).

1. Contact your previous employers: If your former employer is still in business, the easiest way to find an old 401(k) is to contact them. You can ask the human resources department or the plan administrator at the company to search their records to find out whether you participated in the plan, and if they still manage your account. Be prepared to provide the dates that you worked for the employer, your name, and your Social Security number.

2. Find the plan administrator’s contact details: If your former employer has shut down or merged with another company, you can try to contact the organization that administered the plan to see if they still control your 401(k). If you have an old statement, it should contain the administrator’s contact information. You can also contact former co-workers and ask if they have copies of old statements from the plan.

3. Review the plan’s annual tax return: If you can’t access your old plan statements, you can try to find the contact information for the plan administrator via the plan’s tax return. Most plans must file an annual tax return, Form 5500, with the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Labor. Search the website www.efast.dol.gov by entering the name of your old employer to find this form.

The plan administrator’s contact information should be included on the 5500. From there, call the administrator, and ask for him or her to check on your account.

4. Search unclaimed property databases: If you are unable to track down your account through your former employer or the plan administrator, you still have options. Depending on what happened to the company and how much money was in your account, there are a few different places to search.

The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits offers a database where employees can register names of former employees who left retirement funds with them. By entering your Social Security number, you can search this database for free to determine if you have any unclaimed retirement account balances.

Additional online resources, such as missingmoney.com and unclaimed.org, similarly allow you to search for retirement assets in any states in which you’ve lived or worked.

5. Search for default IRA accounts: If your old account had a fairly small balance, it may no longer be in a 401(k). For 401(k) accounts with balances of less than $5,000, a former employer might have rolled the funds into a default IRA account on your behalf. Default IRAs can be created when your former employer is unable to reach you to find out how you want the funds paid to you. You can search for such IRA accounts for free on the FreeERISA website.

6. Search for terminated plans: If your former employer terminated its 401(k) plan, this doesn’t automatically mean your money is lost forever. The Department of Labor maintains a list of plans that have been abandoned or are in the process of being terminated. Search their database to find out whether the plan is in the process of—or has already been—terminated, and learn the contact details for the Qualified Termination Administrator (QTA) responsible for overseeing the plan’s shutdown.

Keep track of your assets

The best way to keep track of your retirement accounts is to not lose them in the first place. Indeed, one of the most important parts of estate planning is to create a comprehensive inventory of all your assets, not just your retirement funds. By doing so, none of your assets will end up in our state’s Department of Unclaimed Property, and your family will know exactly what you have and how to find everything if something happens to you.

With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we’ll not only help you create a comprehensive asset inventory, we’ll make sure it stays regularly updated throughout your lifetime. Yet, with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, creating such an inventory is something that can’t wait. This task is so urgent, we’ve created a unique (and totally FREE) tool called a Personal Resource Map to help you get the inventory process started right now on your own, without the need for a lawyer.

Use this resource to complete your initial inventory of your assets, and from there, schedule an appointment with us to create and maintain your full estate plan. And if you haven’t had any luck tracking down your old 401(k), we can assist with that too. 

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

A case on the Supreme Court’s docket for October could have a major impact on the parental rights of same-gender couples seeking to adopt or foster children. In February, the high court agreed to hear Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which deals with whether taxpayer-funded, faith-based foster care and adoption agencies have a Constitutional right to refuse child placement with LGBTQ families.

In March 2018, the City of Philadelphia learned that Catholic Social Services (CSS), an agency it contracted with to provide foster care services was refusing to license same-gender couples as foster parents. This was in spite of the fact the agency consented to abide by a city law prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination.   

The city told CSS it would not renew their contract unless they abided by its nondiscrimination requirements, but CSS refused to comply, and the city cancelled its contract. CSS then sued the city, claiming it had a First Amendment right to refuse licensing same-gender couples, since those couples were in violation of their religious beliefs. 

Both a federal judge and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city, noting the city’s decision was based on a sincere commitment to nondiscrimination, not a targeted attack on religion. From there, CSS took the case to the Supreme Court.

Rampant discrimination at the state level
LGTBQ adoptions are particularly contentious right now at the state level. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue of the parental rights of non-biological spouses in a same-gender marriage. Given this, many married same-gender couples looking to obtain full parental rights in every state turn to second-parent adoption, as the Supreme Court has previously ruled that the adoptive parental rights granted in one state must be respected in all states.

That said, 11 states currently permit state-licensed adoption agencies to refuse to grant an adoption, if doing so violates the agency’s religious beliefs. In other states, the law specifically forbids such discrimination, but as we’ve seen in the Fulton case, those laws are being challenged.

We plan to write a follow up article once the Supreme Court rules on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. Legal experts predict the case could have a significant impact on not just parental rights for same-gender couples, but nondiscrimination policies related to religious institutions at a broad level. In the meantime, same-gender couples should consider another potential option for gaining parental rights—one that doesn’t require adoption.

Estate planning offers another option

No matter how the Supreme Court rules, same-gender couples seeking parental rights have another option—estate planning. It may be surprising to hear, but it’s critically important for you to know that when used wisely, estate planning can provide a non-biological, same-gender parent with necessary and desired rights, even without formal adoption.

Starting with our Kids Protection Plan®, couples can name the non-biological parent as the child’s legal guardian, both for the short-term and the long-term, while confidentially excluding anyone the biological parent thinks may challenge their wishes. In this way, if the biological parent becomes incapacitated or dies, his or her wishes are clearly stated, so the court can do what the parent would’ve wanted and keep the child in the non-biological parent’s care.

Beyond that, there are several other planning tools—living trusts, power of attorney, and health care directives—we can use to grant the non-biological parent additional rights. We can also create “co-parenting agreements,” legally binding arrangements that stipulate exactly how the child will be raised, what responsibility each partner has toward the child, and what kind of rights would exist if the couple splits or gets divorced.


Secure parental rights—and your family’s future
If you’re in a same-gender marriage—or even a committed partnership with someone of the same gender—and you want to ensure that your significant other has as many parental rights as possible, meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to discover the planning tools are available to you.

And whether you are married, or in a domestic partnership, even with no children involved, it’s critically important you understand what will happen in the event one (or both) of you becomes incapacitated or when one (or both) of you dies. Proper planning can ensure your beloved is left with ease and grace, not a financial and legal nightmare that could have been avoided.

With our guidance and support, you can ensure your partner or spouse will be protected and provided for in the event of your incapacity or when you die, while preventing your plan from being challenged in court by family members who might disagree with your relationship. Contact us today to get started.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Anyone who has seen the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can attest that it’s one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories. And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on a number of critical estate planning and asset protection issues that could apply to your family.

Over seven episodes, Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning and asset protection planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ve been discussing some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary, while offering lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning and a trusted advisor on the team.

In part one  and part two of this series, we discussed how the nightmarish ordeal Don Lewis’ daughters experienced following his death could have been entirely avoided if Don had worked with a lawyer to create his estate plan. Here in part three, we’re going to shift gears and focus on the estate planning mistakes made by the self-proclaimed Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic.

The Tiger King gets dethroned

While the news that Carole forged Don’s will was a huge blow to Carole’s credibility and reputation, that very same week, Carole achieved a major victory over her arch nemesis, Joe. And ironically, that victory also involved fraud, although this time Carole was the victim, not the perpetrator.

On June 1, 2020, a federal judge awarded Carole ownership to all of Joe’s property, including his Oklahoma zoo, 16.4 acres of land, several cabins, and multiple vehicles. The ruling was part of a $1-million judgment resulting from a trademark infringement lawsuit Carole brought against Joe in 2013.

As we wrote about in part one, much of Tiger King was devoted to covering the bitter public feud between Carole and Joe that eventually resulted in Joe being sentenced to 22 years in prison for hiring a hitman to kill Carole. During this feud, Joe and Carole—both owners and breeders of big cats—repeatedly bash one another in the media over the course of decades.

At some point during the feud, Joe creates a company called Big Cat Rescue Entertainment (BCR Entertainment) for his travelling tiger cub-petting business in order to poach Carole’s potential customers. Joe even goes so far as to create business cards for the new company that feature an imitation of the Big Cat Rescue logo, photos from the Big Cat Rescue website, and a Florida phone number to trick people into thinking BCR Entertainment was actually Carole’s sanctuary.

This leads Carole to file a trademark infringement lawsuit against Joe, claiming he created the business cards to cause confusion between the two companies and steal her customers. The court agreed with Carole’s claim, and a judge ordered Joe to pay Carole and Big Cat Rescue $953,000. This judgment, along with the resulting financial stress it puts on Joe, is what ultimately motivates Joe to hire a hitman.

How not to protect your assets
Following the court’s ruling, Joe knows he stands to lose his zoo and everything else he owns to pay the judgment. Desperate to keep his business and prevent Carole from collecting any of his money, Joe attempts to shield his zoo by transferring title to the property to his mother, Shirley Schreibvogel, using a series of quit-claim deeds.

Discovering Joe’s attempt to thwart her, Carole files a separate lawsuit against Joe’s mother for fraudulent transfer of property. Joe’s mother eventually admits under oath during a deposition that the zoo and land were transferred to her by Joe to remove it from the reach of creditors, including Carole. This leads the judge to rule that the property was fraudulently transferred by Joe to his mother, and this judgment effectively reverses those conveyances, giving Carole control over all of Joe’s property.

Although we certainly don’t condone Joe’s actions, he had every right to want to protect his zoo and other assets from being lost to a lawsuit—it’s just that he went about doing so in entirely the wrong way and at the wrong time. In fact, had Joe used proactive planning strategies to properly shield his assets when he started his zoo, he most likely could have  prevented Carole from seizing control of his business—and at the same time, avoided the need to commit the crime that sent him to prison.

This brings us to our third, and final, estate planning lesson—and this one will focus on asset protection: 

Lesson three: To safeguard your family’s most valuable assets from legal and financial liability, consult with an experienced estate planning lawyer to put in place and maintain a comprehensive asset-protection plan—and do so well before you need it.

While we know most people would never find themselves facing anything remotely similar to Joe’s situation, just about everyone faces potential liability from far more common threats. Whether from a lawsuit, divorce, debt, or accident, the more successful you get, the more risk there is that someone will want to take what you have.

Moreover, it’s a popular, yet mistaken, belief that you can safeguard valuable assets like a home or business from creditors and lawsuits (or to qualify for government benefits like Medicaid to pay for long-term care needs) simply by signing over title of your assets to another family member. Yet, as we saw with Joe, transferring ownership in this way not only won’t effectively protect your assets, but can also lead to a myriad of other legal complications for yourself and others.

Although there are a variety of different planning vehicles available for asset protection, the most airtight strategy involves the use of highly specialized irrevocable trusts. Such trusts are set up so that your most precious assets, including those you want to pass on to your children, are owned by the trust, not you. Since you can’t lose what you don’t own, those assets can’t be reached by creditors, lawsuits, or in a divorce.

For example, if Joe had instructed his mother to set up an irrevocable trust for him right from the start, and then either funded the trust with enough money to start his zoo from scratch or buy the zoo at some point after it was up and running, the trust would have owned the zoo, not Joe. In that case, Carol would never have been able to seize the zoo, even if she won a judgment against Joe.

Alternatively, if Joe didn’t have a parent or another loved one to set up the trust for him, he could have established an irrevocable trust for himself and then gifted his business and other assets into the trust. While this strategy isn’t as airtight as the first and requires the passage of years between the time of transfer and the time of protection, it can still be better than nothing, especially if you plan well in advance of any sort of an issue.

Like all estate planning, for your plan to be effective, you must have your asset protection strategy in place well before something happens. If you try to protect your assets once a claim or lawsuit is even threatened, you could end up like Joe and find yourself not only losing your assets, but also charged with fraud. To this end, get your planning started now, while there’s nothing to worry about, and you still have every possible planning option available to safeguard your assets.

Planning lessons for the average Joe
As we’ve seen over the past three articles, when undertaken without the support and advice of a trusted lawyer, estate planning and asset protection planning can go tragically wrong. Although the details of the Tiger King saga are about as abnormal as they come, the lessons presented here can show all of us how to  prevent extremely common planning mistakes and apply to practically everyone who seeks to put a plan in place.

Indeed, if you attempt to handle even the most basic planning tasks, like creating a will on your own or using an online document service or transferring your property,  you’re placing everything you’ve worked your whole life to build in serious jeopardy, while opening your family up to becoming mired in costly legal battles, even decades after you’re gone. Meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to ensure your estate plan works exactly as intended and your family stays out of court and conflict, no matter what.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Anyone who has seen the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can attest that it’s one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories. And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on a number of critical estate planning issues that are pertinent for practically everyone.

Over seven episodes, Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ll discuss some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary, while offering lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning.

A tale of two wills

Last week, in part one of this series, we focused on the estate planning mistakes made by Don Lewis, the late husband of Carole Baskin. Don, a multi-millionaire who helped Carole found Big Cat Rescue, mysteriously disappeared in 1997. Following Don’s disappearance, Carole produced a copy of Don’s will and power of attorney. Don named Carole his executor in his will and agent in his power of attorney.

In his will, Don left Carole nearly his entire estate—estimated to be worth $6 million—while leaving his three adult daughters from a previous marriage with just 10% of his assets. However, Don’s daughters claimed the documents Carole produced were fraudulent.

The daughters contend that their father was getting ready to divorce Carole, and because of the impending split, Don created a will that left his daughters the bulk of his estate, while largely disinheriting Carole. Yet because Don created this will on his own without the assistance of a lawyer, he failed to make and distribute copies of his plan to his daughters—or anyone else.

Don’s oversight ultimately proved disastrous, as the only copy of the estate plan favoring his daughters vanished from his office 10 days after he disappeared. His daughters alleged Carole stole the documents and destroyed them, so she could present her forged documents and inherit the vast majority of Don’s assets—and this is exactly what ended up happening when Don was declared legally dead and his estate passed through probate in 2002.

Although this is as far into the story as Tiger King gets—and where we left off in part one—more facts have come to light since the documentary aired that make the story even more scandalous, while also offering us additional estate planning lessons. 

The Plot Thickens

After seeing the documentary, Chad Chronister, the third Hillsborough County Sheriff in office since Don vanished, reviewed the old case files and assigned new deputies to investigate his disappearance. In June 2020, after enlisting the help of two handwriting experts, the sheriff declared the will produced by Carole as “100% a forgery.”

This was something Don’s daughters always suspected, but were unable to successfully prove on their own due to a lack of financial resources. After Carole first filed her copy of Don’s will and power of attorney with the court in September 1997 (a month following his disappearance), Don’s daughters challenged those documents in court as forgeries.

Court documents show that in November 1997, Don’s daughters hired a handwriting expert to examine their father’s signatures on the planning documents Carole produced. The expert concluded that the signatures were forged, noting that they had likely been traced from Don and Carole’s marriage certificate.

But Carole hired two of her own handwriting experts that concluded the signatures on Don’s documents were genuine. At the time, Don’s daughters said they didn’t have the money to continue to fight Carole over the forgery issue, so they chose not to further challenge the documents, and the court sided with Carole.

However, given the new proof of forgery, can Don’s daughters further challenge Carole in court in an attempt to recover their rightful share of his assets? Sadly, it looks highly unlikely at this late date.

The Clock Is Always Ticking
Under Florida law, the general statute of limitations for legally challenging a will is four years from the date the will was filed, which expired in 2001. And while Florida’s general statute of limitations for challenging a will can sometimes be extended for up to 12 years in cases of fraud, that term expired in 2009.

On the criminal side, both the sheriff and Florida Attorney General noted that the five-year statute of limitations for prosecuting Carole for forgery has also run. Of course, there’s no statute of limitation for murder, and the sheriff said they were pursuing new leads as of July. So there’s a chance that Carole could be convicted on a charge related to Don’s death, and if so, she would be forced to give up all of the assets she inherited from him.

Florida, like most states, has a “slayer statute” that prevents anyone “who unlawfully and intentionally kills or participates in procuring the death of the decedent” from benefiting from their will. Yet even if that were to happen, it’s unlikely that Don’s daughters would be able to recover anything close to what they would be entitled to, especially since Carole has had control of Don’s assets for nearly two decades already.

Given these new facts, what actions should have been taken to prevent such an epic tragedy from occurring? This leads us to our second lesson:

Lesson Two: To avoid putting your loved ones through the unnecessary trauma and expense of litigating potential conflicts over your estate after something happens to you (and it’s too late), you must invest the time and money NOW to get planning in place with a lawyer.

Although Don was quite wealthy, according to almost everyone who knew him, he never came across as such. In fact, he was a notorious penny pincher, who reportedly was even willing to go “dumpster diving” if it meant he could save a dollar or two. In light of this, Don undoubtedly thought that he could save time and money by creating his own planning documents without consulting a lawyer.

Yet as we can see, trying to cut corners and save a few bucks by taking the DIY route with your planning documents is a huge mistake. Indeed, the potential consequences and costs to your loved ones can ultimately far exceed whatever minor savings in time and money you hoped to achieve by not enlisting the assistance of an attorney. As we pointed out last week, if Don had created his estate plan with the support of an experienced estate planning lawyer, none of this would have happened.

And that same lesson applies here as well, particularly in light of these new facts. Had Don worked with a trusted lawyer to create, maintain, and update his plan, Carole would have been unable to pass off forged documents supposedly created by Don in 1996. And that’s because his lawyers, loved ones, and the court would all have certified copies of Don’s most recent plan, rendering any previous versions invalid.

The reason you spend the time and money upfront to hire an attorney to put a proper plan in place is to prevent your loved ones from ever needing to hire their own lawyer down the road. Once something happens to you, whether it’s your eventual death or in the event of your incapacity, it’s too late—you must act now. By working with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can plan ahead to predict and prevent any potential for conflict that might arise over your estate, and we can also help ensure that there won’t be any legal grounds for your plan to be successfully contested.

Moreover, we can also ensure that your loved ones, along with anyone who might have reason to dispute your plan, are fully aware of the reasons and intentions behind every choice you made in your plan—and they learn about these choices while you’re still around. In fact, we often recommend holding a family meeting (which we can facilitate) to go over everything with all impacted parties.

Contact us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, today to ensure your plan works exactly as intended, and your family isn’t subjected to a nightmare scenario like the one Don’s daughters experienced and are still dealing with to this day.

But what about Joe?
Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about Carole’s tabloid-headlining legal battle with Mr. Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic. We’ll explore the highlights of their epic feud—and offer more estate planning lessons based on it—in our third and final article in this series next week.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Anyone who has seen the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can attest that it’s one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories. And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on a number of critical estate planning issues that are pertinent for practically everyone.

Over seven episodes, Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ll discuss some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary, while offering lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning.

The Feud

While the documentary’s dark, twisted plot is far too complicated to fully summarize, it focuses primarily on the bitter rivalry between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, who are both owners and breeders of big cats. Joe, the self-professed “Tiger King,” whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, runs a roadside zoo in Oklahoma filled with more than a hundred tigers, lions, and other assorted animals.

Carole is the owner of Big Cat Rescue, a Florida-based sanctuary for big cats rescued from captivity. As an avid animal rights activist, Carole goes on a public crusade against Joe, seeking to have his zoo shut down, claiming that he exploits, abuses, and kills the animals under his care.

In retaliation, Joe launches an extensive media campaign of his own against Carole, in which he accuses her of murdering her late husband, millionaire Don Lewis, and feeding his remains to her tigers. The feud between Joe and Carole goes on for decades, and it ultimately peaks after Carole wins a million-dollar trademark infringement lawsuit against Joe.

The legal fees and impending judgment from the lawsuit nearly bankrupt Joe, eventually pushing him to hire someone to kill Carole. However, instead of killing Carole, the individual Joe hires goes to the FBI and informs them of Joe’s murderous plot. Joe is ultimately arrested for hiring a hitman to kill Carole, along with multiple animal abuse charges, and he’s sentenced to 22 years in federal prison. 

Although the clash between Joe and Carole takes center stage and exposes key estate planning concerns related to business ownership and asset protection (which we’ll cover a little later) the most egregious planning errors are made by Carol’s late husband Don Lewis. In fact, the full extent of duplicity and damage related to these mistakes isn’t even uncovered by the documentary, and have only recently come to light following renewed public interest in the case sparked by the show.

What’s more, since the fallout from Don’s poor planning has tragic results not just for him, but for the very loved ones he was seeking to protect with his estate plan, we’ll discuss Don’s planning mishaps first.

Missing millionaire
Don, a fellow big-cat enthusiast who helped Baskin start Big Cat Rescue, mysteriously disappeared in 1997 and hasn’t been seen since. After having him declared legally dead in 2002, Carole produced a copy of Don’s will that left her nearly his entire estate—estimated to be worth $6 million—while leaving his daughters from a previous marriage with just 10% of his assets.

Carole was not only listed as Don’s executor in the will she presented, but she also produced a document in which Don granted her power of attorney. However, the planning documents Carole produced were deemed suspicious by multiple people who were close to Don for a number of reasons.

Don’s daughters and his first wife claim that Don and Carole were having serious marital problems before he disappeared, and that Don was planning to divorce Carole. As evidence of this, we learn that Don sought a restraining order against Carole just two months before he vanished, in which he alleges Carole threatened to kill him. A judge denied the restraining order, saying there was “no immediate threat of violence.”

Don’s daughters also claim that around the time the restraining order was filed, their father created a will that left the vast majority of his estate to them, and he did so in order to minimize any claims Carole might have to his property should he pass away. Additionally, Don’s administrative assistant, Anne McQueen, said that before he disappeared, Don gave her an envelope containing his new will and a power of attorney document, in which he named Anne as his executor and power of attorney agent, not Carole.

Anne said Don told her to take the envelope to the police if anything should happen to him. According to Anne, the envelope with Don’s planning documents was kept in a lock box in Don’s office, but she claims Carole broke into the office and took the documents 10 days after he disappeared. At the time, Anne was being interviewed by detectives when she received a call from the alarm company, letting her know that the alarm in Don’s office had been triggered.

When police arrived, they found Carole removing files from the trailer that served as Lewis’ office. She was being helped by her father and Don’s handyman. The handyman had cut the locks, and according to Anne, this was because Carole didn’t have a key. Later that day, Carole had the entire trailer hauled to the grounds of the big cat sanctuary.

Anne told detectives that Carole removed the trailer and its contents in order to destroy his planning documents stored in the lockbox. From there, Anne believes Carole forged the will and power of attorney she ultimately presented to the court.

Carole vehemently denied all of these claims. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Carole said she moved the office trailer because her father claimed he saw Anne removing files from it a day earlier. She also insisted she never threatened Don’s life, and that he disappeared on one of his many trips to Costa Rica. She further claims that Don sought to disinherit his children in his will, and it was only at Carole’s suggestion that Don left them anything at all.

Although law enforcement investigated Don’s disappearance from Tampa to Costa Rica, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said the investigation failed to uncover any physical evidence, only a conflicting series of stories and dead ends. In light of this, Don’s estate passed through probate in 2002, and his assets were distributed according to the terms of the will Carole presented, leaving Carole with the bulk of his $6-million estate, and leaving Don’s daughters with just a small fraction of his assets.

While there’s more to the story surrounding Don’s planning documents and Carole’s suspicious actions, let’s first look at the planning mistakes Don made and how they could have been easily prevented.

Lesson 1: Always work with an experienced estate planning lawyer when creating or updating your planning documents, especially if you have a blended family.

If Don’s children and assistant are correct in their claim that Don created a will that left his daughters the bulk of his estate and disinherited Carole, it appears he did so without the assistance of an attorney. This was his first big mistake.

There are numerous do-it-yourself (DIY) estate planning websites that allow you to create various planning documents within a matter of minutes for relatively little expense. Yet, as we can see here, when you use DIY estate planning instead of the services of a trusted advisor guiding you and your family, the documents can easily disappear or be changed without anyone who can testify to what you really wanted. In the end—and when it’s too late—taking the DIY route can cost your family far more than not creating any plan at all.

Even if you think your particular planning situation is simple, that turns out to almost never be the case. There are numerous reasons why a DIY estate plan can cause them to be ruled invalid by a court, while also creating unnecessary conflict and expense for the very people you are trying to protect with your plan.

And while it’s always a good idea to have a lawyer help you create your planning documents; this is exponentially true when you have a blended family like Don’s. If you are in a second (or more) marriage, with children from a prior marriage, there’s an inherent risk of dispute because your children and spouse often have conflicting interests, particularly if there’s significant wealth at stake.

The risk for conflict is significantly increased if you are seeking to disinherit or favor one part of your family over another, as Don was claimed to have done with Carole. In fact, Florida law prevents one spouse from completely disinheriting the other in their estate plan, so unless Don was aware of this fact when he cut Carole out of his will, she would still be entitled to one-third of his assets upon his death, no matter what his will stipulated.

By creating your own plan, even with the help of a DIY service, you won’t be able to consider and plan ahead to avoid all the potential legal and family conflicts that could arise. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, however, we are not only specially trained to predict and prevent such conflicts, but our unique planning process can actually help create connections among your loved ones and bring your family closer together. In fact, this is our special sauce.

Finally, as we saw with Don, if your loved ones can’t find your planning documents—whether because they were misplaced or stolen—it’s as if they never existed in the first place. Yet, if Don had enlisted the support of an experienced planning professional like us, his documents would have been safeguarded from being lost, stolen, or destroyed.

If you’ve yet to create a plan, have DIY documents you aren’t sure about, or have a plan created with another lawyer’s help that hasn’t been reviewed in more than a year, meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. We can ensure that your plan will remain safe and work exactly as intended if something should happen to you.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the estate planning lessons you can learn from the Netflix documentary Tiger King.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

If you are engaged to be married, divorce is probably the last thing you and your fiancé want to be thinking about. Yet you might be rightfully concerned about what would happen to your assets should your marriage end in divorce or in the event of your death. One option you might be considering for protecting your assets from these events is a prenuptial agreement.

However, even bringing up a prenup can be a romance killer that creates friction and distrust before the marriage even begins. And if it’s not properly created and executed, a divorce court can invalidate the asset protections offered by a prenup, so such agreements don’t exactly provide airtight protection.

Plus, a prenup would do nothing to keep your family out of court and out of conflict should you become incapacitated or when you die, which is something everyone who gets married needs to consider.

That said, prenups aren’t your only option. With proactive estate planning, for example, you can structure your assets in such a way that not only protects them from being lost to divorce, but also provides for both your future spouse and any children you may have from a previous marriage in the event of your death or incapacity.

Last week in part one, we discussed some of the benefits and drawbacks associated with using prenuptial agreements. Here, we’ll look at different estate planning vehicles that could provide similar—or even better—protection than prenups.

Revocable living trust created by you: By setting up a revocable living trust and funding it with your separate assets before getting married, those assets would likely be considered non-marital property and not subject to division by the court upon divorce—as long as you never commingle any of those assets with your spouse after your marriage. To ensure your separate property assets stay separate, it’s vital that you create and fund the trust with your assets before the marriage and never add any assets acquired or created during the marriage.

If you commingle assets acquired during the marriage in a trust containing your separate non-marital assets, a court could declare all of those assets as marital property subject to claim as part of a divorce settlement. To this end, a revocable trust only protects your separate assets from divorce if they remain separate from marital property throughout the whole length of your marriage.

You can also use a revocable living trust to provide for your surviving spouse and children from a previous marriage in the event of your death or incapacity. Unlike a will, assets held by a trust are not subject to the court process known as probate, so those assets would be immediately available to your spouse and kids, sparing your family the time, expense, and potential conflict of probate.

Note that since a revocable trust is “revocable” by definition, there is no asset protection for assets in your revocable trust, meaning that a revocable living trust will not protect your assets from creditors during your lifetime. If you want to achieve protection from both a future divorce and future creditors, you may want to consider one of the irrevocable trusts below.

Irrevocable trust created by your family: You can protect your assets from divorce by having your parents (or another loved one) establish an irrevocable trust for you before your marriage. Then, the Investment Trustee of the irrevocable trust (who could be you) could purchase all of your existing assets in an arms-length transaction and manage those assets inside of the trust, where they are totally protected from a future divorce and any future creditors.

Note that this strategy does require special provisions to ensure you cannot make distributions to yourself from the trust without the approval of an “independent trustee.” This trustee could be a best friend or a professional trustee, but cannot be anyone related or subordinate to you.

Your parents or grandparents could also leave any future inheritance you are to receive to this irrevocable trust, ensuring that your inheritance would also be protected. If this irrevocable trust is properly established and the terms are well-counseled and well-drafted, all assets the trust owns—and any assets left to you in the future—will be fully protected from a future divorce, future creditors, and even from estate taxes and probate upon your death. Yes, we like these trusts a lot.

Irrevocable trust created by you: It’s also possible for you to establish an irrevocable trust for yourself and gift your assets into the trust to keep them safe from divorce. However, this strategy is not as airtight as having a parent or grandparents establish the trust for you.

When you gift assets to an irrevocable trust, there’s a risk that a spouse or future creditor can claim fraudulent conveyance, if you gift those assets within a certain number of years (the exact time frame depends on the state) of the trust being set up. That said, if you are looking for asset protection and an alternative to a prenuptial agreement, and do not have a parent or grandparent available, a self-settled irrevocable trust can be a great second-best alternative.

Start your marriage off right
If you are getting ready to tie the knot and would like to ensure that assets you bring into the marriage don’t end up being lost in a future divorce settlement or are protected for your kids from a prior marriage, meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, for trusted counsel and guidance on all of your options well before your marriage. Once you are married, many planning options are off the table.

And regardless of your concerns about divorce, you definitely need to create or update your estate plan to protect and provide for your soon-to-spouse and any children you have in the event of your death or incapacity. Schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session™ today to get this planning started.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

If you’re counting down the days to your wedding, divorce is probably the last thing you and your fiancé want to be thinking about, and yet you might be rightfully concerned about what would happen to your assets in the event of a divorce—or your death. You may also be worried that suggesting a prenuptial agreement could hurt your future spouse by making him or her feel as if you don’t trust them, thereby creating friction before the marriage even begins.

While such concerns are valid, you should know that prenups aren’t your only option for shielding your assets from these scenarios. With a well-designed estate plan, for example, you can structure your assets in such a way to keep what you have safe, provide for your future spouse in the event of your death, and also protect your assets in the event of a divorce. In this way, you can avoid having the prenup conversation all together.

We do recommend talking with your future spouse about your assets, what would happen in the event of your death, and also making plans in advance so you can feel confident that any children from a prior marriage (or an expected inheritance) are well-planned for no matter what happens. In this two-part series, I’ll first discuss the pros and cons of prenuptial agreements, and then in part two, provide estate-planning alternatives you may want to consider.

Prenup Pros

Sets clear financial expectations: For many couples, not openly discussing money and the partnership’s financial expectations can lead to big problems down the road. In fact, money problems are one of the leading reasons that marriages end, right up there with infidelity. A well-counseled prenuptial agreement could be an opportunity to start your marriage with complete transparency and clearly establish the financial and property rights of each spouse should a divorce occur or in the event of the death of either spouse.

Helps protect your separate assets: If you have any tangible or intangible assets you are bringing into the marriage that you don’t want to risk losing, a prenuptial agreement can help shield that property from divorce proceedings or from a future “elective share” of a spouse upon your death. This can be vital if you have significant assets like a business, real estate, intellectual property, vehicles, or family heirlooms. And, if you know you’ll want to ensure your assets go to children from a prior marriage, a prenuptial agreement can protect those assets for your children. 

Helps prevent a lengthy, contentious, and expensive divorce: Divorce is never fun and can often be both emotionally and financially painful, but putting a prenuptial agreement in place could make it less so. Clearly establishing the financial and property rights of each spouse when the relationship is at its most loving—and putting those parameters in a legally-binding document—can greatly reduce the chances of you two duking it out in court later if your marriage doesn’t work out. A long, expensive court battle is the last thing you need when dealing with the painful emotions and often-hefty legal fees associated with a divorce.

Helps prevent disputes over debt: Not everyone is equal in their ability to manage their money. As mentioned earlier, disagreements over finances are a frequent reason marriages fail. Therefore, it could be a good idea to use a prenup to identify who is responsible for taking care of specific debts and liabilities. You don’t want to be stuck paying for your ex-spouse’s credit card debt when you had nothing to do with racking it up.

Prenup Cons

It’s not exactly a romantic gesture: No matter how untrue this assumption may be, people often perceive creating a prenuptial agreement as expecting the marriage to fail or that it indicates a lack of trust. Such concerns should be respected and addressed as tactfully as possible. But the reality is marriage involves lots of issues that aren’t romantic, and dealing with such delicate matters up front could bring the two of you closer (or expose hidden red flags), regardless of whether an agreement is actually created or not.

Whatever you do, don’t wait to have the discussion until right before the ceremony. It’s not only extremely rude, but it could lead a court to invalidate an agreement put in place at the last minute as being created with undue pressure.

It might not be necessary: What a prenuptial agreement can cover depends on what kind of assets you have and where you live. Given this, existing divorce laws might already split your assets up in a way you think is fair. For example, in community-property states, the court will divide the property you and your spouse acquired during the marriage in an equal 50/50 split, while each spouse gets to keep his or her separate property. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can talk about how the laws in your state apply to you and your particular asset profile (hint: Alaska is an opt-in community property state).

It can’t resolve issues of child custody, support, or visitation: It’s important to note that prenups can’t address certain issues related to children and divorce. For example, though prenups can help ensure your children from a prior marriage are able to inherit assets you want to leave them, these agreements cannot be used to address child support, custody, or visitation rights. Those issues must be resolved by the court, so a prenup would be useless if that’s what you’re hoping to achieve.

It may require two lawyers to be valid: Prenuptial agreements may be invalidated if both parties are not represented by independent legal counsel. And depending on the lawyers you each work with, lawyers who are not well-experienced with counseling, care, and conflict resolution can inadvertently escalate or intensify conflicts, rather than supporting you and your future spouse to get on the same page.

Alternative options

If you plan ahead, certain estate planning vehicles can be used to protect your assets from divorce settlements and ensure that assets pass to your children from a prior marriage in the event of a divorce. There are different types of trusts, for instance, that can be set up to allow you to protect assets for yourself in the event of a divorce, and for your children in the event of your incapacity or death.

In fact, such planning vehicles may prove much more effective at protecting your assets and providing you with more control over how your assets are distributed than a prenup. In part two of this article, we’ll cover the various ways to use estate planning vehicles to proactively protect your assets, so you don’t need to have multiple attorneys or risk losing assets to a new spouse in the event of divorce or death.

Meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, for additional help deciding whether a prenuptial agreement is the right choice for you and to discuss other estate planning alternatives that could achieve similar protections.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

In the first part of this series, we discussed the vital importance of having updated advance directives in place in light of COVID-19. Here, we’ll look at several additional provisions you should consider adding to your directives to address potential contingencies related to the pandemic.


With new cases of COVID-19 currently surging in dozens of states, doctors across the country are joining lawyers in urging Americans to create the proper estate planning documents so medical providers can better coordinate their treatment and care should they become hospitalized with the virus.

The most crucial planning tools for this purpose are medical power of attorney and a living will, advance healthcare directives that work together to help describe your wishes for medical treatment and end-of-life care should you become unable to express your own wishes. While all adults over age 18 should put these documents in place as soon as possible, if you are over age 60 or have a chronic underlying health condition, the urgency is paramount.

COVID-19 Considerations
What’s more, in light of COVID-19, even if you’ve already created these documents, you should revisit them to ensure they are up-to-date and address specific scenarios related to the coronavirus. In the first part of this series, we discussed some unique circumstances related to COVID-19 and its treatment that you should be aware of when creating or updating your directives.

Here, we offer several more provisions you should consider adding to your directives to ensure the documents address as many potential contingencies as possible during the ongoing pandemic. 


1. Permission to undergo experimental medical treatments:
Since there is currently no proven vaccine or other effective treatment for COVID-19, you may consider adding provisions to your directives authorizing your agent to consent to—or withhold consent for—any experimental treatments or procedures that may be developed. Seeing that it could be years before an effective vaccine or cure will be available on a widespread basis, such a provision could be particularly important if you contract the virus while such treatments are still in the trial phase.

2. Express your wishes about intubation and ventilators: In severe COVID-19 cases, patients often require intubation, which involves putting you into a medically induced coma and inserting a tube into your windpipe, allowing oxygen to be pumped directly to your lungs using a ventilator. However, some directives specifically prohibit intubation, since such measures are often a last resort and used primarily for life-support purposes. Indeed, some people’s greatest fear is being hooked up to a machine just to keep them alive.

That said, some coronavirus patients have successfully recovered after being on a ventilator, so you might not want a blanket prohibition of intubation in all cases. While the exact survival rates are still unknown, early reports from New York City health officials found fewer than 20% of COVID-19 patients ultimately survived after being placed on a ventilator. Reports from China and the U.K. found similar rates.

You’ll also need to weigh the fact that even if you survive after being placed on a ventilator, you’re likely to require months, or even years, of rehabilitation and may never regain the full quality of life you previously enjoyed. And if you’re elderly or have an underlying condition, the prognosis for full recovery is especially slim.

For these reasons, you should carefully review your directives’ provisions regarding intubation and ventilators with us and your doctor to be certain your documents accurately reflect your wishes. There is no right or wrong answer here, so it’s critical your loved ones and medical professionals know what you would want.

To help you make more informed decisions, read What You Should Know Before You Need a Ventilator, a doctor’s perspective about intubation’s potential health consequences for COVID-19 patients. Additionally, you can find a more comprehensive discussion of coronavirus treatment decisions at the non-profit Compassion & Choices resource page, COVID-19: Understanding Your Options.

3. Consider a liability shield for doctors and hospitals: Due to fear of getting sued, some doctors and medical facilities are hesitant to honor living wills and work with healthcare agents. To deal with this, consider including language in your directives that “indemnifies” medical providers, facilities, and your agent from any liability incurred as a result of following your directions. People and institutions will be much more likely to fully honor your wishes if they understand they likely won’t get hit with a lawsuit for doing so.

4. Make sure everyone knows about (and has current copies of) your directives: Even if you have the most well thought-out and professionally prepared directives around, they won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on if nobody knows about them. Both medical power of attorney and living wills go into effect the second you sign them, so you should immediately deliver copies to your agent(s), your alternate agents, your primary care physician, and any other medical specialists you’re seeing.

And don’t forget to give those folks new versions whenever you update the documents and have them tear up the old documents. This is a standard part of our practice when serving clients, so when you work with us on your legal documents, we’ll ensure that everyone who needs to have your documents always has the latest version.

Pandemic planning

The tragic reality of the pandemic is that far too many Americans are at risk of becoming seriously ill and even dying from COVID-19. In light of this dire situation, it’s vital that you and your loved ones take all possible precautions to not only mitigate your chances of catching the virus, but also having the best possible chance of surviving if you should become infected.

In the event you become hospitalized with COVID-19, having updated advance directives in place can make the medical decision-making process for both your healthcare providers and family much safer and easier, while helping ensure your treatment is carried out based on your personal wishes and values. Given the overloaded state of our healthcare system right now, facilitating your medical care in this way could ultimately save your life.

Whether you have yet to create these documents or need yours updated to address COVID-19, meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, right away to take care of this urgent planning task.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country, doctors across the nation are joining lawyers in urging Americans to create the proper estate planning documents so medical providers can better coordinate their care should they become hospitalized with the virus.

The most critical planning tools for this purpose are medical power of attorney and a living will, advance healthcare directives that work together to help describe your wishes for medical treatment and end-of-life care in the event you’re unable to express your own wishes. In light of COVID-19, even those who have already created these documents should revisit them to ensure they are up-to-date and address specific scenarios related to the coronavirus.

While all adults over age 18 should put these documents in place as soon as possible, if you are over age 60 or have a chronic underlying health condition, the need is particularly urgent. Contact us right away if you or anyone in your family needs these documents created.

And if you’d like to listen in on a training with my mentor on when you can create these documents yourself, when you need a lawyer, what it should cost, and how to get your documents done right, please listen to it now by registering at PersonalResourceMap.com.

Advance directives
Medical power of attorney is an advance directive that allows you to name a person, known as your “agent,” to make healthcare decisions for you if you are incapacitated and unable to make those decisions yourself. For example, if you are hospitalized with COVID-19 and need to be placed in a medically induced coma, this person would have the legal authority to advise doctors about your subsequent medical care.

If you become incapacitated without medical power of attorney, physicians will generally look to someone in your family to make these decisions for you. If no family can be located, they may ask the court to appoint a legal guardian to be the decision maker. In either case, the person given this responsibility could be someone you’d never want having power over such life or death decisions—and that’s why having medical power of attorney is so important. Expressing your wishes in writing can also help empower the person making decisions for you to know that they are doing what you would have chosen.

While medical power of attorney names who can make health-care decisions in the event of your incapacity, a living will explains how your care should be handled, particularly at the end of life. For example, if you should become seriously ill and unable to manage your own treatment, a living will can guide your agent to make these medical decisions on your behalf.

These decisions could include if and when you want life support removed, whether you would want hydration and nutrition, and even what kind of food you want and who can visit you. To ensure your medical treatment is handled in exactly the way you want and prevent your family from undergoing needless stress and conflict during an already trying time, it’s vital that you document such wishes in a living will.

Keep your directives updated
Even if you’ve already created advanced directives, now is the perfect time to review the documents to ensure they still match your wishes and circumstances. For instance, is the agent named in your medical power of attorney still the individual you’d want making these decisions? Has your health changed in ways that might affect your living will’s instructions? Are your values and wishes regarding end-of-life still the same?

Coronavirus considerations
Because COVID-19 is so contagious, family members of those who’ve contracted the virus are often not allowed to accompany them to the hospital. This means your agent likely won’t be there in person to make your treatment decisions. While most advance directives give your agent broad authority to communicate with your medical providers, the documents may not explicitly authorize certain types of remote communication.

To remedy this, you may want to consider adding language to your directives expressly authorizing your agent to give directions by phone, Zoom, email, Skype, FaceTime, and other methods. To facilitate this communication, you should bring copies of your directives with you to the hospital to give your doctors, and ensure your agent (and any alternate agents named) have updated copies on-hand as well.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the critical need for advanced directives in the age of COVID-19.

As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can guide you to make informed, educated, and empowered choices to protect yourself and the ones you love most. Contact us today to get started with a Life & Legacy Planning Session.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

In January, we reported how the deaths of NBA legend Kobe Bryant (Kobe) and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, in a helicopter crash demonstrated the vital need for estate planning for people of all ages. At the time, little was known about the planning strategies Kobe had in place to protect and preserve his estimated $600 million estate for his wife, Vanessa, and three surviving  daughters, Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months.

Since then, court filings made by Kobe’s widow have shed light on both the successes and failures of Kobe’s estate planning efforts. On the positive side, Kobe created an extensive estate plan, which included the Kobe Bryant Trust to protect his assets, reduce estate-tax liability, and pass on his wealth to his family.

While the contents of trust remain private, the court documents do provide a summary of the trust’s terms. Upon Kobe’s death, the trust was set up to allow Vanessa and her daughters to draw from the principal and income of the trust’s assets during Vanessa’s lifetime, with the remainder going to their children upon Vanessa’s death.

However, while the trust lists Vanessa and his oldest daughters Natalia, Gianna (who died in the crash with her father), and Bianka as beneficiaries, his youngest daughter, Capri, who was born just six months before Kobe’s death, was not included in the document. Reportedly, Kobe and his lawyers simply never got around to adding Capri to the trust before his untimely death at age 41.

A tragic oversight

Seeking to fix this oversight, Vanessa Bryant and Kobe’s best friend Robert Pelinka, Jr.—who were named Co-Trustees—petitioned the Los Angeles probate court to modify the trust by adding Capri as a beneficiary with equal rights as her sisters. Unless the court agrees with the petition, Capri will be ineligible to inherit her share of the family estate held in the trust, which could amount to wealth and assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to the petition, the trust was created in 2003 after the birth of the couple’s first child, Natalia, and its intent was to provide for the support of Vanessa and all of the couple’s children following Kobe’s death. As evidence of this intent, the petition points out the fact that Kobe amended the trust to add daughters Gianna and Bianka after they were born.

Although it’s likely the court will agree to the trust’s modification to include Capri, the fact remains that Kobe and his legal team made a major error by not updating his plan immediately following her birth. This mistake has undoubtedly cost Vanessa not only hefty sums of money in lawyer fees and court costs, but it also eliminated the trust’s biggest benefits by failing to keep Kobe’s surviving family members out of court and conflict, as well as exposing the estate’s details to the public.

And the most unfortunate part of the whole situation is just how easily this oversight could have been avoided.

Stay up to date

It’s a popular myth that estate planning is simply a matter of creating the proper documents, filing those documents away for safekeeping, and only revisiting them upon the creator’s incapacity or death. However, this is far from the truth. Indeed, this oversight by Kobe’s lawyers illustrates why most plans—even those created by multi-millionaires—fail to keep families out of court and out of conflict when it’s too late. And though Kobe’s family can easily absorb these costs, your family probably can’t without significant impact.

As Kobe’s case shows, even the most well-intentioned plan can prove ineffective if it’s not regularly updated. Estate planning is not a one-and-done type of deal—your plan must continuously evolve to keep pace with changes in your family structure, the legal landscape, your assets, and your life goals.

And unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all the time. In fact, outside of not creating any estate plan at all, one of the most common planning mistakes we encounter is when we get called by the loved ones of someone who has become incapacitated or died with a plan that no longer works because it hasn’t been updated. Yet, by the time they contact us, it’s too late.

We recommend you review your plan annually to make sure it’s up to date, and immediately modify your plan following events like births, deaths, divorce, and inheritances. We have built-in systems and processes to ensure your plan is always up to date, so you won’t need to worry about forgetting anything.

Mapping your assets

You should also create—and regularly update—an inventory of all your assets, including digital property like cryptocurrency, photos, videos, and social media accounts. By doing this, your family will know what you have and how to find everything if something happens to you, and none of your assets will end up in our state’s Department of Unclaimed Property.

We will not only help you create a comprehensive asset inventory, we’ll make sure it stays regularly updated throughout your lifetime. And with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, creating such an inventory is something you should take care of immediately.

In fact, this task is so urgent, we’ve created a unique (and totally FREE) tool called a Personal Resource Map to help you get the inventory process started right now, by yourself, without the need for a lawyer. To learn more, visit Personal Resource Map, which will help you create an inventory of everything you own to ensure your loved one’s know what you have, where it is, and how to access it if something happens to you.

As Kobe’s sad story illustrates, death and illness can strike at any time, and even the most extensive estate plan can fail without the proper systems in place to keep it updated. To ensure your plan works exactly as intended for the ones you love most, contact us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, today to review and update your current plan, or create one if you have yet to do so.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.