What to Know About Estate Plans in California

Even with Alzheimer’s, you can still have the capacity to complete one

Of all the worries that can accompany the idea of setting up an estate plan, there’s one that Redwood City attorney Melissa R. Karlsten hears the most.

“Many of my clients will admit to worrying that if they don't do an estate plan, it's all going to go to the government,” she says. “In all my years of practice, that's never happened. You have to basically die with no relations living on this planet.”

In fact, when she initially meets with prospective clients—which she always does in person—that’s something she’s sure to cover: “What’s the worst thing that could happen if you don't have an estate plan when you die? If you're married, it goes to your spouse. If you have kids, it might be divided between your spouse and your kids,” Karlsten says.

When you do decide to set up an estate plan, Karlsten can put one in place in four to six weeks. “I typically quote—for a will and a trust, and powers of attorney, including health care directives—for a married couple, somewhere between $3,000 to $3,500,” she says. “It’s less if you're a single person—about $2,000 to $2,500. I bill by the hour, but there are plenty of attorneys who do fixed fees.”

Once you have an estate plan in place, it’s crucial to review it every three to five years. And with handy tools like Google or Microsoft Outlook’s calendar, it’s become quite breezy to set up recurring reminders. Karlsten also recommends pulling out your documents every time a major life event occurs—some of which are: when your children hit 18, if there’s been a divorce, a death, a birth—even winning a lottery ticket.  

But what if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s of dementia, and you don’t have a plan in place yet?

“That doesn't mean they don't have capacity to do an estate plan. Particularly a will, because it's a very low-level standard of capacity,” Karlsten says, noting that there are three things a person needs in order to sign a will:

  • They need to know that the document they're doing is a testamentary document, as opposed to a crossword puzzle, etc.
  • They need to have a general sense of what their assets are.
  • They need to know who the objects of their bounty are—meaning relatives, friends, etc.

“I think that an attorney always has an obligation to do their own assessment of their clients, to ensure that they have capacity to be making those decisions,” she adds. “I have worked with physicians to evaluate specifically about whether or not my client can name an agent under a health care directive, or name someone to make their financial decisions—whether it's with a power of attorney or a trust or a will.”

While Karlsten notes that short-term memory problems don’t signify incapacity, she’s also quick to point out that trusts, powers of attorney and health care directives all have a higher standard than wills.

And of course, she recommends that you meet with an experienced attorney to get the ball rolling on an estate plan before you may be in desperate need of one.

“It’s really important to get this stuff done before you're at that precipice,” Karlsten says. “People don't want to face their mortality; I don't want to face my mortality. Whether it's the money, or the conversation, or that I'm a stranger, it takes a lot for people to come in and come see me. Imagine now that you've also been given a devastating diagnosis of dementia. Is this what you're going to want to deal with? That’s why you should deal with this before it gets to that point.”

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