You might think estate planning is only for the most-wealthy of the top 1%. Maybe, you’ve heard there is an exemption currently allowing each of us to shelter almost $13 million from combined federal estate and gift taxes. So, it’s understandable why someone would be a bit surprised (maybe even confused or shocked) to hear that Legal Aid of Marin (yes, Legal Aid!) is partnering with Vivalon and The Spahr Center to create a series of free estate planning clinics for older adults.

Why would a Marin County senior who isn’t VERY wealthy need, or even want, an estate plan?

Here are a few reasons:
• You want to make sure on your death your assets go where you want them to go.
• You want to make a gift of personal property (such as, a piece of jewelry with sentimental value) to a specific person.
• You want your family and friends to avoid the expense and delays of probate.
• You want to nominate someone to take care of your finances if you become incapable of doing so yourself.
• You want to have a meaningful say in your future health care even if you become incompetent.
• You want to nominate someone to care for a minor dependent.
• You want to reduce the chances of infighting among your family and friends.
These are valid concerns whether you have an estate of $100 million or $100. To build a more equitable Marin, Legal Aid of Marin (“LAM”) believes all residents deserve access to estate planning services. Furthermore, older adults who put their affairs in order and create valid estate plans are substantially less likely to become the victims of financial exploitation and other forms of elder abuse.

Despite all these benefits of estate planning, the unfortunate truth is that fewer than half of California adults have a will or other planning documents. When someone dies without a plan, the California intestacy succession laws (Probate Code § 6400 - 6414) govern what happens to their property. These laws are based on a set of assumptions about people’s values and relationships. Sometimes, this works out just fine. For example, a married couple with two children, no step-children, and only community property might fare quite well, as long as both spouses want to leave everything to the surviving spouse and, if the spouse has predeceased, then everything equally to their children. But as we all know, families come in all shapes and sizes these days. And sometimes the result under the probate laws of intestacy succession can be disastrous. Take the example of a couple in their seventies who have been together for 20 years but never married or entered into a CA domestic partnership agreement. Since California does not recognize common law marriage, if one of them dies without a will, all of that person’s property could go to a distant relative rather than the long-term partner.

With a generous grant from Marin County through Older Adult Recovery and Resilience (OARR) funding initiatives, Legal Aid of Marin will hold a minimum of four estate planning clinics this year. These will be full-scope estate planning opportunities, where each participant will meet one-on-one with an experienced estate planning attorney and leave the clinic with fully executed documents. In most cases, this will include a will, durable powers of attorney and a health care directive. Sometimes, participants will create a trust. Additionally, participants will receive resources and education around elder abuse and consumer fraud. And the entire program, including notarizing documents, is completely free to Marin residents age 60 and over.

Initial intake interviews and the clinics themselves will be held at Vivalon and The Spahr Center. By partnering with two of Marin’s longstanding service organizations, the clinics are designed to meet low-income, older adults in their own communities, where they live, work and socialize. Members of the LGBTQ communities are being prioritized since they particularly are at risk of having testamentary interests that don’t align with the Probate Code’s laws of intestate succession. LAM’s partnerships with Vivalon and The Spahr Center ensure that the most vulnerable in our communities will be served by this project.

As far as LAM has been able to determine, this program is the first of its kind in the Bay Area in terms of individualized planning and depth of services that will be offered, as well as the numbers of residents who will be served. Not only will these clinics significantly benefit Marin residents, they could serve as a model for other counties in California.

This is an ambitious project, and it will succeed only if local attorneys step up and join LAM’s efforts. If you have some background working with wills or in probate or probate litigation, LAM needs your help. Please consider sharing a little of your time as a volunteer estate planning attorney on this project and help to make Marin the equitable and fair place we all envision. The clinics are designed to require only a limited time commitment (likely, less than 2 hours per participant) and estate planning attorneys will have maximum flexibility to meet with the seniors virtually at a time convenient for the volunteer attorney. Attorneys with no estate planning experience are also greatly needed. LAM will provide training and the opportunity to work one-on-one with participants. Attorneys will be eligible for CLE credit. From the moment LAM and its partners began outreach for this program, the demand has been tremendous. Older adults recognize they need these services. LAM is hoping for a robust response from MCBA members to meet this demand.

If you’d like more information on LAM’s estate planning clinics, or to volunteer, please contact Bonnie Ross.
Email: Tel. Direct: 415-492-0947