By Tom Blake
This year, I received stories from two senior couples who reunited at their respective high school 50th class reunions. Their stories are quite similar. Both couples married and both husbands died within months of marrying.
But the stories differ in one significant way: estate planning. The purpose of today’s column is to remind seniors to ensure their estate plans are up-to-date.
Couple number one: Randy and Jackie
Jackie wrote, “I went to my 50th class reunion in September 2015 and met a classmate. It became a wonderful love story. Randy lived in Illinois and I lived in San Clemente. We married in September 2016. We had a lot of love and laughter.
However, Randy passed away in April, seven months after we were married.
Randy updated his estate to pay off the house, and I was made (an) equal trustee with his son. He gave me his IRA, which I will be taxed on. I have the house to sell, if I need to, and I have his car.
I can’t imagine another love story happening like what just happened to me. To add to the pain, I got a denial letter from the Social Security Administration that you must be married nine months to get your husband’s Social Security, which was over $2,000 a month, compared to my $152.
Note from Tom: I checked with the Social Security Administration and found this: “For a Social Security survivor’s benefit, a widow or widower must have been married to the deceased worker at the time of his or her death and for at least nine months immediately prior to the day in which the worker died, unless one of the exceptions is met.”
Jackie added, “I know Randy left in peace saying I would be okay having his Social Security. I joke and say if he knew about the S.S. law, I could see him wanting to be on life support for two more months.
“I meet people worse off than me and I am very grateful for all I have.”
Couple number two: Phil and Sue
Jackie mentioned she couldn’t imagine another love story like what happened to her. I know of one. In fact, I wrote about it.
The couple, Phil and Sue, were high school classmates of mine from the graduating class of 1957 in Jackson, Michigan. At our 50th high school reunion, they talked face-to-face for 20 minutes, the only time they had talked to each other in 50 years.
On Feb. 1, Sue, who lived in Michigan, telephoned Phil, who lived in California. They had never dated in high school. Both had been married and their spouses had died.
After several lengthy February phone conversations, they decided to get married. On Feb. 24, when Sue got off the airplane in Ontario, they headed directly to the County Clerk’s office in Fullerton and got married.
They were happy together, time flew by. They visited classmates across the country, including me. They went to Michigan to prepare for Sue’s move to California. They were planning on attending our 60th high school reunion a week from Saturday in Michigan.
After that, they would return to California and move into a place in Orange County. According to Sue, one of their first chores would be to update Phil’s estate plan. Phil had no children, everything was being left to charity. He was going to change his estate plan to include Sue in his distribution of assets.
However, Phil passed away from heart-related issues just four months after he and Sue were married. They didn’t even get to attend the reunion together.
So there Sue was—back in Michigan, having to deal with a California trust that did not include her and did not designate her as a trustee or executor. To make matters worse, both trustees opted out of the task.
Here we had two couples: one couple whose estate plan was updated, which provided nicely for the wife. And the second couple where the estate plan was not updated and provided nothing for the wife.
These stories inspired me to update my estate plan. I was signing my updated documents in the office of Jeffrey Hartmann, an estate planning attorney in San Clemente, on August 31, and happened to mention Phil and Sue’s situation to him.
Jeffrey said that in California, Sue would be entitled to be provided for in Phil’s estate as a pretermitted spouse.
Even though she lives in Michigan, she may consider pursuing this avenue in California.
Seniors, including those who marry quickly, should have their estate plans and wills updated. Having an air-tight estate plan is very important, and that includes having at least two successor trustees/executors who can be counted on.
In California, if you own property and pass away without a living trust, your property will go into probate—a prolonged and expensive process.
My stand up paddle boarding buddy, Russell Kerr, a retired financial planner and previous chairman of the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce, said there are two words to stress to seniors regarding updating estate plans: “What if?”
Even people who do not own property should have a simple will, so that their assets will be distributed according to their wishes. Dying interstate, without a will, leaves those decisions up to the state.
Tom Blake is a Dana Point resident and a former Dana Point businessman who has authored several books on middle-aged dating. See his websites at www.findingloveafter50.com; www.vicsta.com and www.travelafter55.com. To receive Tom’s weekly online newsletter, sign up at www.findingloveafter50.com or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.