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“Rebel without a Cause (or a Will) – Meeting the needs of younger clients” by Stacey Romberg

By April 22, 2011 No Comments

Printed in the February, 2011 edition of DeNovo, the magazine for the Young Lawyers Division of the Washington State Bar Association

James Dean, who died at age 24 in a tragic auto accident, once said, “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” On the day he died, Sept. 30, 1955, Dean may have been living life to the fullest, but he was not prepared to die — at least from the legal standpoint. James Dean died intestate. As a result, “most of his possessions went to his father, Winton Dean, whose relationship with him was distant at best.”[1]

No one is invincible, even the young. It is challenging convincing younger clients they can benefit from estate planning. How do you motivate them? Motivation comes from knowledge. As their attorney, it is your job to explain to younger clients, in real terms, what the consequences can be if they die intestate, or lack a power of attorney or a healthcare directive.

For example, suppose Dean’s entertainment lawyer had said, “James, I know you’re only 24. But you are becoming a wealthy young man.  Do you know that, if you don’t get a will done, and something bad happens to you, everything will go to your dad? Is that really what you want?”

The following are examples of what you need to tell your younger clients while guiding them through the estate-planning process:

  • A client who cohabitates need to understand the consequences for his partner if he dies intestate — i.e., without a legally valid will. Will his partner really be able to continue driving the car he was driving, and living in the house they shared?  Maybe; maybe not.

  • If your client has been married for a short time and dies intestate, the probate may be challenging due to the need to distinguish between community and separate property. Many young clients assume that their wives or husbands will automatically get everything. But dying intestate may result in undesired consequences that affect the unprotected spouse.

  • If your clients have young children, guardianship and trust considerations are paramount, and a key component of your clients’ responsibilities as new parents.

  • Your clients need to consider the impact of their death on their parents. I have probated several estates of young decedents who died intestate. The devastated parents will grieve that loss for the rest of their lives. You need to explain to your clients how, by preparing, they can make the process easier for their parents — especially if their parents will serve as personal representatives. Their parents will also be comforted by understanding exactly how their child wanted to handle her estate, and by knowing those wishes were carried out.

  • Pet ownership is common, especially in Seattle.[2] Encourage your clients to make certain they have taken appropriate steps to meet their pets’ needs in the event that they are no longer able to care for their animals.

  • Estate planning is an important part of everyone’s legacy. Members of Generation Y (those born roughly between the late 1970s and late 1990s) focus on giving back. (According to a recent survey, for example, more than half of workers in their twenties prefer employment at companies that provide volunteer opportunities.[3])  When working with Generation Y clients, emphasize opportunities to make charitable contributions in their wills, and explore the idea that a will can be a document that expresses their personal values.

Once you have convinced a young client of the wisdom of estate planning, it is helpful to be aware of the demographics involved. Young clients may require more frequent adjustments to their documents because their life circumstances change more rapidly. Being knowledgeable of the general societal trends helps you work with those clients and ensure their documents change with them. For example:

  • Your clients are getting married later in life than previous generations. In Washington, the median age for men to marry is 27.5 years. For women, it’s 25.7 years. These statistics closely mirror the national average.[4]

  • In Seattle, many of your clients live in households made up of one person. Two out of five Seattle households are one-person households, which is a higher percentage than other Washington cities and other U.S. cities of comparable size. Also, in Seattle, your clients are not likely to have children.[5] Only 20 percent of Seattle households include someone younger than 18 years of age.[6]

Accordingly, many of the wills you prepare for young clients may be “simple” wills, with no testamentary trusts for children and no provisions for a spouse or partner. However, you need to also be aware that the rates of cohabitation have increased, both in Seattle and in the United States. In 2009, the number of opposite-sex couples choosing to cohabitate increased by 13 percent in the United States. This spike in the
cohabitation rates appears to be spurred by the recession, and the corresponding need to find affordable housing and otherwise share expenses. Nationally, only 39 percent of newly cohabitating couples consist of two employed persons.
[7]

In addition, newly cohabiting couples tend to be younger than other couples who have previously made the commitment to live
together.
[8] Seattle mirrors this trend, although available statistics are not as recent. Households of unrelated people who live together make up 46 percent of the city’s growth between 1990 and 2000.  Cohabitating, unmarried couples (including registered domestic partnerships) now represent 15 percent of Seattle households.[9]

Significantly, a recent study on such couples found that, after five to seven years, only 21 percent of the pairs were still together.[10]

When representing young clients, you need to find out if they are cohabiting. If so, what are the circumstances? Is it a committed relationship and the couple wishes to complete their estate planning jointly? Or did your client’s boyfriend get laid off and then moved in to share expenses? Either way, the relationship needs to be addressed as part of the estate planning process.

Your client needs to be advised that, if a committed intimate relationship (CIR) is found to exist between the two of them, then joint property may be accumulated that might be subject to claims by the surviving partner as described in Connell v. Francisco, 127 Wn.2d. 339 (1995).  You should also encourage your clients to enter into a domestic-partnership agreement to clarify the property rights and obligations between partners. A young client may be reluctant to enter into such an agreement due to the cost and, potentially, uncertainty about the durability of the relationship. But you still need to ensure your client understands the potential advantages of finalizing an agreement and makes an informed choice. If your client decides to enter into an agreement, you need to follow up to make sure that the client’s estate-planning documents are consistent.

Finally, what about Washington domestic partnerships registered pursuant to Chapter 26.60 RCW? More than 8,000 couples have registered as domestic partners to date, according to the Washington Secretary of State’s office. Estate planning attorneys need to ask their clients whether they have registered as domestic partners and, if so, whether they also have a domestic-partnership agreement in place. You need to advise your clients about their registration’s impact on the estate-planning process, including the accumulation of community property and the rights of a surviving partner during the probate process.

Stacey L. Romberg is a solo practitioner whose office is located in Seattle. She focuses her practice on estate planning, probate, and business law. She can be contacted by e-mail at info@staceyromberg.com.  Her website is www.staceyromberg.com.


Notes

[1]
IMDb: The Internet Movie Database Biography for James Dean


[2]

For example, the CATalyst Council, a non-profit entity devoted to feline welfare, named Seattle as the No. 7 Cat Friendly City in the U.S. in 2009. See “The CATalyst 2009 Top 10 Cat-Friendly Cities,” available at: http://catalystcouncil.org/newsroom/index.aspx?ID=5.


[3]

Penelope Trunk, “What Gen Y Really Wants,” Time, July 5, 2007.


[4]

NCFMR Family Profiles, “Median Age for First Marriages in the U.S., 2008,” citing U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2008. Available at: http://ncfmr.bgsu.edu/pdf/family_profiles/file78895.pdf.



[5]

According to the City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development, the percentages of one-person households in the other four Washington cities with populations over 100,000 range from 28 percent in Bellevue and Vancouver to 34 percent in Tacoma. And the
number of one-person households increased by more than 11,000 between 1990 and 2000, accounting for 52 percent of Seattle’s new households during that decade. See “Seattle Prior Census: 1900–2000 Population and Housing Trends,” available at: www.seattle.gov/dpd/Research/Population_Demographics/Prior_Censuses/19 0-2000_Population_Housing_Trends/DPDS_007034.asp



[6]

“In King County, the corresponding figure is 30 percent; in Washington state, 35 percent.” See id.



[7]

Cheryl Wetzstein, “More Unmarrieds are Living Together amid Tough Times,” Washington Times, September 23, 2010, available at www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/sep/23/more-unmarrieds-are-living-together-amid-tough-tim/.



[8]

Sharon Jayson, “Census Study Finds Spike in Cohabitation,” USA Today, October 3, 2010, available at www.usatoday.com/printedition/news/20100924/cohabitation24_st.art.htm.



[9]

See “Seattle Prior Census: 1900–2000 Population and Housing Trends,” available at: www.seattle.gov/dpd/Research/Population_Demographics/Prior_Censuses/1900-2000_Population_Housing_Trends/DPDS_007034.asp.



[10]

Dr. Phil, October 3, 2010, citing The Boston Herald.

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