Preserving History in Present and Future Times: Protecting Elders and the Aging Population

 

John F. Kennedy Exhibit. The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Washington DC.

“History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future.” 

As we celebrate President’s day in memorialization of the great leaders of this nation’s past, we reflect on this quote by former President John F. Kennedy and what I call the greatest teacher in life- history. With this in mind, there is perhaps no population group in our society that are greater students of history than our elders, who throughout the years have experienced life and encountered history in ways many of us hope to attain by reaching greater age.

Significantly, according to the Administration on Aging (AA), the United States is experiencing a dramatic increase of people who live to old age, creating challenges for Americans of all ages. Although elders are often synonymous with senior citizens aged 65 and over, with the growing aging population and baby boomers coming into retirement age, AA categorizes “preseniors” as those ages 55-64. Like senior citizens, preseniors often face the same issues that come along with aging as years continue.

Furthermore, as our population ages and transitions, we face unique obstacles in not only protecting the legacies left behind by our elders, but in protecting the lives of our elders themselves.  As we grow, our estate grows, our family grows, and our needs grow. We have more to lose and protect, including the key categories of asset protection, health protection, and income protection. Yet, with proper planning, we can “ensure” preservation of wealth and assets for the benefit of future generations, as well as personal protection for the well being of our beloved elders.

First, regarding asset protection, the more we age and earn, the more we acquire. But, we all know that we cannot take our possessions with us after death, so what happens to our prized valuables? This is where an estate plan becomes pivotal, whether it be instructions left in a simple will or a more complex but structured trust to distribute assets, which can also be tailor made to fit individual situations, such as a special needs trust. Regardless of the outcome, the key requirement in estate planning is capacity. One must know what they possess and the natural objects of their bound, usually close family members like spouses and children, or else the plan can be challenged or overruled due to lack of capacity. With memory illnesses like Dementia and Alzheimer’s often affecting older populations, testing for capacity can be quite a challenge, but it is nevertheless possible and necessary in constructing an adequate estate plan.

Second, as referenced, with the aging process, our health needs change, including our ability to care for ourselves physically and make decisions mentally. In planning for elder health requirements, government insurance programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid play key roles in covering these needs. However, there are a variety of other options available to cover issues that are not so commonly tied to traditional health needs such as medical treatment and prescriptions. Often times, due to deteriorating physical and mental health conditions, in additional to medical care, seniors may require assistance in making common decisions and transactions. In these scenarios, guardianships and conservatorships  present attractive options, as guardians are appointed to meet personal care needs and conservators appointed to make informed decisions, most often regarding finances.

Third, speaking of finances, with advanced age comes the joy of retirement, but the loss of income. Social Security, once again, is a program to provide income during our golden ages, but the caveat is that it is a fixed income, which leaves little room for many expenditures for lower income seniors. Nevertheless, there are many useful options for managing income and retirement finances, including aforementioned conservators, as well as powers of attorney- written instruments that give another person the authority to make decisions on behalf of the person granting the power. Additionally, estate planning presents a multitude of options to best utilize retirement plans such as IRA’s and 401Ks.

Because our population is rapidly aging and retiring, the need to protect elders and preserve their legacies is paramount. Granted, though accounting for all needs may seems like a daunting task, it is nonetheless necessary for the well being of the older individual affected, as well as beloved family and friends. So today, as we reflect and honor the nation’s forefathers and greatest leaders, let us also hold our current elders in these highest regards by ensuring their personal protection and preserving their legacies for future generations to honor and celebrate.

The Future of the Vote in Detroit

Sprit of Detroit Monument. Detroit, MI.

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Malcom X.

What is the future of the vote in Detroit? After last year’s infamous election, the same question can be asked throughout the country. However, with controversy surrounding the vote count in the 2016 election, Detroit is ground zero for the future of the vote.

For Detroit, the future is now. 2017 marks the citywide elections for offices ranging from the mayor to the board of police commissioners, and perhaps most notably, the city clerk. As alluded to earlier, following the 2016 election, numerous reports emerged regarding faulty machines resulting in erroneous tabulations of votes. Although a recount was in effect, due to faulty vote report machines, over half of Detroit votes were ineligible for the recount. Naturally, as the chief elections official, the City Clerk came under fire, with one news outlet even calling for the Clerk’s resignation.

However, the City Clerk remains in office for now, and while outdated technology accounted for much of the blame, the Clerk also identified human error as a significant source of the problem. Specifically, the city has struggled to recruit and retain elections inspectors and precinct workers, with this work mostly falling to senior citizens. The average age of city poll workers is 68, and poll worker training occurs only once before the primary and general elections.

While the City Clerk has advocated for quarterly poll trainings and appeal to younger Detroiters, the debacle of the 2016 Election has compromised the integrity of the clerk’s office, as well as the vote itself. This is troubling for younger voters, who along with Baby Boomers constitute the largest electorate in the United States. Yet, the youth vote is notorious for low turnout during elections, with 2016 being no exception.

For the future of the vote in Detroit to not only grow, but remain intact, we must simply refer to history, our greatest teacher in life. By following the words of the late, great, Malcolm X, we must educate our young people on the importance of voting, and engage them in the political process early and often. Expanding poll trainings and targeting young voters is a good start, but the efforts must not end there. With voting rights under attack nationwide, here in Detroit, we can act now by reaffirming the vote and growing our power by investing in the youth, effectively setting the standard for the rest of the country moving forward.

My Black History: Legacy Building Through the Generations

 

Tina Patterson and Tyrone Patterson. Wayne State University Graduation, 2009. Detroit, MI.

Today, February 8, 2017, marks the fourth anniversary of my father’s death.

The day after he died, an otherwise sunny Saturday morning, I vividly remember eating breakfast, then going to sit on the couch in the living room, where I proceeded to write him a note. Almost instantly, the tears began to swell, but throughout the process, I could not cry. My daughter, with whom I was six months pregnant at the time, refused to allow the tears to fall, insisting on kicking me instead, which turned my fresh, devastating pain into temporary laughter.

Little did I know that five days later, Valentine’s Day, I would end up reading aloud the personal note I wrote to my father at his funeral, barely making it past the first word, “Daddy,” before breaking down into tears in front of the entire room. However, I am so happy I shared my feelings then, and I am happy to go back to one of the darkest times in my life to share those feelings once more.

My father was a black man, born in Tuskegee, Alabama, raised in Marion, Ohio, and remained in Detroit, Michigan from January 1966 at age 16 until the day he died. As a black man coming of age in the civil rights era, he dealt with racism throughout his life. As early as age 10, I remember him sharing his stories with me. I remember well how angry he was in his youth to see and hear white men refer to his father, my grandfather, a grown man (and WWII Navy Vet, no less), as “boy.” I remember my father telling me about the infamous 1967 Detroit Riot early in my youth, and I remember him retelling the story when I interviewed him on the subject as a college sophomore. During the Riot, which occurred three blocks from our home, my father, then 18 years old, was beaten by the police. Although he grew up to become a sheriff for our county, he was a black man first, and still held skeptical views of law enforcement.

I asked him, “why then become a police officer?” He responded that at the time, he was married (to his first wife) with two young children, and it was a good job with which to raise a family. And he did well for himself, raising his first two children before divorcing, remarrying, and raising his next two children, me and my younger brother. He also bought the family home from my grandparents, which is still in our family after 51 years, and sent three of his four children to college, with one now a practicing attorney- me. The irony of it all? My father originally wanted to be a lawyer himself, but gave up that dream to raise his family. I only found out after graduating from college and studying for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), when my father showed me his old LSAT study books from the 70’s.

Aligned with Black History Month, when writing my note to him, the theme that resonated with me was how much he achieved during his lifetime, in spite of racism along the way. Was he a nationally recognized icon? A Pulitzer Prize winning author? Or a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States? No. Does any of that matter? No. In my eyes, he was a black man who achieved so much in a time where so much was denied. He is my Black history. Moreover, he left a lasting legacy to his descendants, which enabled us to carry on with life, painful as it has been, without him.

Previously, I wrote that he died without a will. While this was unwise, he took many positive, crucial actions during his lifetime that protected us financially after his death. He named us as beneficiaries of his life insurance policies, which avoid probate being payable at death, and saved me from insolvency since I was unemployed. Further, life insurance proceeds are not treated as income, so there were no tax consequences. He left two homes behind, as well as two vehicles, and bank accounts, which are transferred on death, thereby avoiding probate. He understood not only the need to provide for his family while living, but to ease the burden of death with economic protection. Taking these simple steps, along with creating an estate plan, are easy ways to protect your family now in the face of uncertainty, and without my father’s final protections, I’m sure my circumstances would be vastly different.

Like any parent, my father wanted better for his children, and it is hard to argue that he failed in this endeavor. I am proud of everything I have achieved so far in my young life, and so happy to live his dream, which I shared, of becoming an attorney. Moreover, I am proud of him and the sacrifices he made and the difficulties he endured so that I can be where I am and have what I have. In his final act of giving during his lifetime, when I asked him for a loan to purchase bar study materials and pay for bar exam application fees, he instead wrote a check and gave me the money. He died three months later, four years ago today.

Today, as an attorney, as a black woman, and most of all, as his daughter, I am proud to be his living legacy, and I am honored to carry his memory, love, dedication, and protection to the next generation.

A Tale of Two Homes: When Dying Without a Will Goes Wrong

David & Gladys Wright House. Phoenix, AZ.

“The Home should be the treasure chest of living.”

Although the home portrayed above was designed by legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the quote is by equally legendary Swiss architect Le Corbusier. It signifies the important role the home plays in our society. Relating the home to a treasure chest signals that it protects what we value most, meaning we should take great care in protecting the treasure chest itself- the home.

Not only do our homes contain our valued property, but they provide an address necessary for employment, cultivate an environment for growing a family, and significantly, homes create wealth that we can pass to the next generation. However, according to a recent Gallup poll, the majority of Americans do not have a will in place to determine how to handle their estate after death. If our homes are truly treasure chests, why would we ever leave them behind with no instruction to protect and provide for the families we  love?

While the answers vary, the consequences can be dire. Additionally, even with a will in place, if not drafted by an attorney who can foresee potential trouble down the road and minimize or even avoid these issues, unnecessary complications can arise, costing more time, effort, and in some cases, valuable property, including homes. To illustrate the point, rather than cite statistics or create hypothetical situations, I will describe two actual examples of what can occur to the family home if the homeowner dies without a will. Hint: these are real life examples that happened in my own family.

First, the “good.”

My father passed away four years ago. While he was a man who took care of his home and family, he did not leave behind a will, despite owning two homes. One home described him as the owner, a married man, which meant it automatically passed to my mother as his wife. However, that property was really just a house.  Our true home was the property we occupied, which I had lived in for over 25 years. Although my father “owned” the home, paying off the mortgage from his parents who lived there previously, the title was never transferred and remained in my grandmother’s name, meaning each of her four children had a 1/4 interest in the home. While her estate was probated in court at her death, it was not handled by an attorney, who could have solved the issue.  This meant that at my father’s death, instead of inheriting our home outright, my mother received a 1/4 interest in the home with my father’s siblings. Fortunately, each of them signed over their interest to my mother, who now owns the home outright and continues to occupy it as she had for decades. This was the good news. Other families may not have signed over their interests so easily, if at all, especially since we lived in a 3000 square foot home in a historic neighborhood. Unfortunately, family quarrels are common after a death, so having an estate plan in place to instruct what happens next is critical to avoid such potential conflicts.

Now, the “bad.”

I had an aunt who passed away over ten years ago. She also died without a will, and left behind a minor child and a home. Her child, my cousin, was well taken care of, as another aunt won guardianship, but what about the home? Unfortunately, no case was ever opened to probate my aunt’s estate, meaning no action was ever taken on the home. Years later, we discovered the city had somehow reclaimed ownership of the home, and just a few years ago, the home was demolished. Where childhood memories once existed now stands an empty lot. Worst of all, my cousin, who is now married with a child, just purchased a new home last year, their first home. Had proper action been taken, or more easily, had my aunt left behind a will, her minor child would have already had a home in which to raise a family, instead of absorbing mortgage debt years later.

 

These are just two possibilities of what can happen when failing to leave behind a will or other estate plan, as well as the perils of planning without an attorney. While there are a multitude of online legal service providers that sell do it yourself estate planning products, these programs are not real life people with knowledge of the entire process and can draft to avoid foreseeable conflicts. Further, in weighing costs, spending more for an attorney now can save money down the line, as common mistakes can end up costing more to correct.

In closing, consider the following quote: “Home is the most popular, and will be the most enduring of all earthly establishments” (Channing Pollock).  Do not leave your home up to chance. Instead, with the help of an attorney, create an estate plan to ensure that your home will endure throughout your family from generation to generation.