Stop Procrastinating. It’s Time To Make A Plan!

Hook Law News | Aug 24, 2018 | Letha Sgritta McDowell

This month Americans lost the Queen of Soul and, while it is a tragedy within the music world, the passing of Aretha Franklin highlights a legal tragedy as well.  Aretha Franklin died with no estate plan.  That means she had no last will and testament, no revocable trust, no irrevocable her trust, no power of attorney, nothing!  For estate planning attorneys it seems ludicrous that an accomplished woman with a net worth estimated to be in excess of eighty million dollars would have no estate plan.  Such a plan would have minimized the estate tax her estate will pay (which will ultimately born by her heirs), nor has she planned to protect her heirs by placing their assets in further trust, nor is there a clear statement of her intent as to who shall inherit upon her death and who shall be responsible for managing her estate.  Already her four sons and a niece have come forward as interested parties in Ms. Franklin’s estate.  Sadly, Ms. Franklin is not the only person of means to die without an estate plan. Paul Walker, Heath Ledger, Prince, Bob Marley, and Howard Hughes are just a few of note.

Estate planning is not something that is only needed by extremely affluent individuals.  Instead estate planning is needed for almost every adult.  Creating an estate plan allows a competent adult to clearly specify who will make medical and financial decisions upon their incapacity and how assets will pass at their death.  Not having some sort of estate plan can cost heirs in the way of additional legal and court fees, additional taxes, and potentially losses due to a failure to see in the future.  If a person dies without some sort of plan, each state has a set of rules that dictate where assets will pass after all final bills and expenses are paid.  In many cases, the state default is not how most want their assets to be left, and even if the state default is the individual’s intent, the additional fees for passing assets without a will or trust are not a part of the intent.

In addition to the consideration of who will receive certain assets at death, of equal importance is the manner in which the beneficiary will receive the assets.  Are the assets to pass outright, in which case, they may be subject to current or future creditor claims or claims of a  beneficiary’s future ex-spouse.  Perhaps there is a thought that a surviving spouse can and should re-marry.  In many cases, the remarriage of a spouse would be celebrated, but the first spouse to die may wish to preserve his or her assets (or share of their jointly-held assets) for his or her heirs. With a little planning, these goals may be easily accomplished and the goal of preserving and protecting future generations is not one which is isolated to high net worth families.

There are other things to consider such as who will have custody of minor children should both parents die.  And, while the federal estate tax exemption has increased to $11 million per person (neither Virginia nor North Carolina have a state estate tax) all income earners are required to pay income tax.  So, while estate taxes may not be of high importance to many, income tax is still an issue for all, and, therefore, an estate plan should consider tax efficient transfers of wealth to different generations.

Humans have a 100% mortality rate which means we will all die at some point yet, 70% of Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 do not have a will and more than half of Americans over the age of 55 do not have a will.  The reasons for delaying vary from an irrational fear that executing a will or trust will hasten a person’s death or fear of the process.

A good estate planning attorney will work with you to solidify your goals and objectives, discuss potential issues which you may not have yet considered, and then draft documents which achieve your goals.  The process for estate planning does not have to be difficult and the need for planning does not require great wealth, simply a desire to preserve and protect loved ones.

Ask Kit Kat – Burros Booming

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about burros in Arizona and how they are actually thriving there?

Kit Kat: Well, yes, it does appear that burros or donkeys are doing quite well in Arizona. Their numbers are increasing to the extent that there are nearly 15,000 burros living in areas that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls in that state. So, with some help from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), an experimental program to limit pregnancies is underway. It is called the Platero Project. The four-year project is funded by an anonymous donor who just loves burros.

The project will begin by working with a small sample and injecting females with the  contraceptive vaccine PZP. Burros are bit late to this method, which has been successful with deer and wild horses. What makes the attempt so tricky with burros is that they don’t have a defined breeding season, so it has been difficult to pinpoint their fertility periods. According to Stephanie Boyles Griffin of HSUS, “The question isn’t whether PZP works. The question is how to apply it to a herd of 1,000 female burros on 900,000 acres of land—and it’s best answered by starting on a smaller scale.” Burros are extremely intelligent, and they have learned to thrive in harsh, dry conditions by using their hooves to find sources of underground water.

Heretofore, attempts at birth control for burros has been limited to separating female burros from their herds, and putting them in holding facilities until they can be adopted. But that method is slow and cannot handle much volume. Currently, there are nearly 1,000 burros in BLM corrals. A new approach is needed. Stay tuned to see how the Platero Project progresses. We’re hoping it achieves its goals. (Emily Smith, “A better way for burros,” All Animals, July/August 2018, p.8)

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Letha Sgritta McDowell

Attorney, Shareholder, CELA
757-399-7506 | 252-722-2890
[email protected]

Letha Sgritta McDowell is a Shareholder of Hook Law practicing in the areas of estate planning, elder law, special needs planning, estate and trust administration, asset protection planning, long-term care planning, personal injury settlement consulting, guardianships & conservatorships, and tax law. Ms. McDowell’s clients range from high-net-worth individuals with over $75 million in net worth to families with limited assets.

Ms. McDowell is a past President of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and was named as a Fellow of the prestigious American College of Trusts and Estates Council (“ACTEC”) in 2020. She is certified as an elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation (“CELA”) and Board Certified as a specialist in Elder Law by the North Carolina State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Furthermore, McDowell is accredited to prepare and prosecute claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ms. McDowell is currently the chair of NAELA’s strategic planning committee, a member of the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Chapter of NAELA, and a member of the Board of Directors for the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. She is the former Chair of the North Carolina State Bar’s Elder Law Specialization Committee and is the former Editor-in-Chief of “Gray Matters”, the newsletter for the Elder Law Section of the North Carolina Bar Association. She is a consultant for InterActive Legal and has worked on several law and technology initiatives including IBM’s Watson project. Along with her experience practicing as an attorney, she has dedicated much of her time writing for national publications including, but not limited to: Wolters Kluwer,, the NAELA Journal, Trust & Estates Magazine and many more.

Practice Areas

  • Elder Law
  • Estate & Trust Administration
  • Estate Planning
  • Asset Protection Planning
  • Long-Term Care Planning
  • Special Needs Planning
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