Brian M. Douglas is an estate planning attorney in Atlanta, Georgia. He assists clients in all areas of life and wealth planning. In this interview, he talks about important issues each person should plan for during their personal life stages. Brian M. Douglas is the international best-selling author of “Plan Your Estate Before It’s Too Late: Professional Advice on Tips, Strategies, and Pitfalls To Avoid In Your Estate Planning” available on Amazon.
Brian is a highly respected attorney with a solid reputation with his clients, colleagues, opposing counsel, and within the court system throughout the state of Georgia. Through his firm, he has taken on very diverse cases, working with real estate law, estate planning and elder law. What Brian is highly acclaimed forestate planning and asset protection. Today, Brian is married to a wonderful woman, Tess. They have two small children who make life a daily adventure, and are passionate about animal rescue and fostering, along with all causes that help promote it.
In this interview, he discusses how to plan your estate during different times in your life.
Tamara Patzer: This is Tamara Patzer, and I am happy to introduce you to today’s guest, Brian Douglas. Brian is an attorney in Atlanta, Georgia and he helps individuals and families preserve their legacy through estate planning. I’m really excited about this topic because everybody needs to think about their legacy at some point in time, and I don’t think it really matters if you’re young, middle aged, or older, it’s an important topic. Who do you help with this planning?
Brian Douglas: We help pretty much everyone. I kind of joke with some of colleagues that are divorce attorneys, and I say the statistics for divorce say that half the people that get married will get divorced, so your target audience is only half the population if you will, or at least the married population. As we all know, the statistics for death is a hundred percent. We all are going to pass away at some point in time, so we offer our services to everyone. Generally I kind of put them into three different buckets if you will, there’s the young family that’s starting out or the younger individuals that maybe have children, are about to have children, are starting a family, their assets may not be where they’re going to be in thirty, forty years, but they have considerations that are unique to that situation. Meaning, if something happens to them, I kind of use the Titanic as the example, the boat sinks, so what happens? Mom and dad go on the cruise and the boat sinks, now you and I know that doesn’t happen very often, but those types of things can happen and do happen. Who gets the children? What happens to the children? Who gets the house? The children would maybe get it, but you don’t want to leave a house, or a car, or a 401k, or a life insurance policy to a three year old. That’s kind of one of the first places where people will start. Then you get maybe the empty-nesters, children have gotten through college, they’re moving on, they’ve accumulated some assets, they’re still working, they’re still accumulating assets, but retirement’s out there on the horizon, they’re not there yet but they can see it. They have a unique kind of level of planning that we look at and then we do with them, there’s a very powerful set of tools and planning that we can do for them because they’re approaching what is that third category which is the retired people.
Long term care, fixed income, the assets that they’ve had for the most part are what they’re going to have and that’s going to take them through the rest of their life and beyond. With the aging population that we have with the baby boomers, with people living so much longer through medical technology, long term care and health issues is a huge concern coupled with the skyrocketing costs of health insurance or rather health care, on the insurance as well, but the skyrocketing costs of health care can bankrupt people. You can be nursing home poor, meaning every dime that you have just gets sucked into the care of you or your spouse, or a parent, depending on whoever you are.
Tamara Patzer: You have three basic categories, your young people, they could be single or married, then as we travel through time, the empty nester people who are saying, I raised my kids, they’re off to college, and now I have to think about what’s happening in the next twenty years or so, and then of course, you said the older people. Let’s go ahead and maybe give one little piece of a tip about if I’m a younger person, what should I be really focusing on in my younger years?
Brian Douglas: The planning for younger people, frankly isn’t all that much different than older people, with the exception of a couple things. Generally the younger people will have younger children, they have minor children, so the planning I’m going to do for my minor children would be different than the planning that someone would do for their adult children because just the same thing, you don’t want to have a ten year old or even a sixteen year old, an eighteen year old, even if they’re not legally a minor, you don’t want to give them a bunch of money or property because they need to have some rules to go along with it. They may or may not be emotionally and financially secure and educated enough to handle those sorts of things, so anything that you were to give them, you would want to give them with a certain rule book. Obviously, if they’re under eighteen, one of the biggest considerations for people, parents if you will, in their planning is who will raise my children if I’m not here to raise my children myself? Identifying who shares the values and the social customs, and norms, and everything that’s important to you and your spouse if something were to happen to the two of you and you could no longer raise your children. I get that phone call a lot, it kind of makes me laugh because I can always tell when we’re going to get to that point in the call and it’s usually a younger mother. Usually a first time mother as well, first child, and the child’s about a year to two years old, and they’re taking their first trip together and they’re leaving the baby with grandma or whomever it may be, it doesn’t matter. Mom is getting nervous about what if something happens, who’s going to raise my baby? I get it. We’ve all been there as parents and go through those thoughts, but it’s funny because as the conversation evolves, just in the initial phone call when they call in, it always ends up, well, I want to really make sure that my family gets the child, and my parents raise the baby, or my sister, or my brother, and then it goes a little further. Then she’ll say, what I really want is to make sure his family doesn’t raise the baby, and it always makes me laugh because it takes them a while to really openly admit that and say that, but that’s ultimately where I can generally tell where the conversation is headed is she wants to make sure, not only that it is her family that gets the child, but his family’s also included. The in-laws versus the outlaws kind of thing I guess. I think that younger couple, the biggest point that I see, the biggest consideration is the raising of the children if you are no longer able to do so.
There are other financial tools and tips, there’s a lot of great things young people can do. Life insurance, I’m an attorney, not an insurance salesman, but life insurance only gets more expensive as you get older, and it’s such an important thing, but sadly so many people don’t realize that until they’re older in life and the premiums have gone up ten times versus what you could get when you’re younger. There’s a million tools, and tricks, and tips, but I think the family preservation and who will raise the children physically, who would get custody of them. Families are so spread out, where do they go? Meaning, my sister lives in Milwaukee, and so if something happened to me and my wife, do I uproot my children and send them to Wisconsin to where they don’t know anybody, they don’t have any friends up there, but we have family. Those types of decisions require a lot of thought and a lot of exploration.
Tamara Patzer: Basically it’s never too early to talk to an attorney about planning your estate and your legacy, and what happens to your family situation? You also talked about a legacy planning, what exactly does that mean in the overall scheme of things? Some people it’s like everything goes to my family, but other people want to leave a legacy to a larger group of people, so can you talk a little bit about legacy planning?
Brian Douglas: Legacy, we all know what legacy means, the textbook definition of it, but I really hesitate to define it specifically whenever I meet with someone because my goal is to determine what legacy means to you. You said it very well, my legacy and whether it goes to my family may be very different if your legacy, everything goes to your university that you went to or to a charity, or to your church, whatever that may be. That’s precisely what it is, it’s the person or the family’s goals on what they want, how they want to be remembered, how they want to define their own legacy. I see a lot of people that say, “Brian, we’re fine, we raised our children, we put them through college, they’ve got decent jobs, they’re doing well. I don’t really care that my children get anything from me, but I would like my grandchildren to get from me. I would like to have college funds set aside for my grandchildren if there’s money left over. I don’t want to give it to my kids so they can go and blow it on whatever because they got decent jobs and we did everything for them. They’re where they need to be in life and they’re self sufficient.”
It’s a very personal question and it’s a very personal answer on how you define that. Like I said, you see churches, you see different charities, animal places, whatever moves you in life, they have the ability to benefit from you after you’re gone. If you want to leave them a gift or if you want to do something in some way to show an organization, or charity, or a person for that matter that they were really important to you. It’s always heartwarming to me when I work with someone and we’re going through the process, you have to learn the lay of the land, I have to know who all the players are, who the family members are, the children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, whatever the case may be, you find out very quickly who people’s circle is, that surround them and what’s important to them, and then they’ll throw in this other personal question. I always get asked the question, well who’s that? How is that person connected? Is that a child of a niece or whatever, and they tell you a story. No, that person was really great to my mother when she was sick or that person did this for me when I was young, or whatever. When people remember that, it’s just so special because first of all, they’re not expecting anything from you, that type of gift, those are the favorite kind. The few times that it’s ever happened to me in my life, and even in very small amounts, but I was remembered in a couple people’s wills that I would have never expected to be remembered in, and they weren’t clients or anything like that, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to write myself in your will. Which, if you don’t want to give it to anybody else, you spell Brian with an I, not with a Y, so certainly you’re free to leave it to me, but the reality is these were people that I just didn’t expect it.
It was so heartwarming to me that somebody thought enough about me and the relationship that we had that they wrote me in there and they gave me something, or they did something. It didn’t have to be big, it wasn’t millions of dollars life changing, it wasn’t even thousands of dollars in reality, it was very, very small and insignificant, the gift was insignificant, but the thought and the sentiment lasted a long time and I’ve got goosebumps telling you this story. Just thinking about it right now because that’s how powerful it is, and that’s defining your legacy. There’s no way, I can’t tell you how to define your legacy. I’ve got clients who come in and say, “Brian, this is what we’re going to do and I hope my last check bounces. I don’t care if I leave a dime to my kids,” and that’s fine too because that’s their legacy, and that’s what they want. It’s a very, very subjective question.
Tamara Patzer: I think you explained it very well and it just made me think of it’s the thought that counts, and actually to know that you meant something to somebody, enough that they would even mention you is a really big gift in itself. To just know that you meant something to someone. You mentioned early on about the health care planning and it makes me think of the end of life issues that people have to consider, and about, for example, my father’s eighty-nine years old and he’s actually dealing with a situation right now where his girlfriend, longtime girlfriend who’s also eighty-nine has dementia. They’re not married but he’s trying to figure out how to get her help because her family’s kind of like, whatever, but it makes me think about these health care planning issues and end of life issues so that you don’t put someone who you care about into a situation like my dad is in. He’s older but he’s still okay, mentally capable, she really needs to get help, so what does he do? Talk a little bit about the health care planning and end of life issues that people should be thinking about and getting some information, and being educated about.
Brian Douglas: As you said earlier, it’s never too early for any of these topics because tomorrow’s never guaranteed for us. There’s no tomorrow, we don’t know what’s going to happen in ten seconds, ten minutes, ten years, whatever, so it doesn’t matter if you’re old or young. You can be struck with illness, you can be in an accident and end up in a situation, Terry Schiavo’s probably the most famous example. I say her name a lot just because the media coverage that she got over the course of a year or so, and you remember she was the woman in Florida that ended up in what was called a persistent vegetative state, where there was a fight between her husband and her parents over what would happen with her, and what her true end of life decisions were that she had planned.
I want to say, and I may be wrong, she was young, she was in her thirties and she was struck by a weird cardiac condition that ended up basically, losing oxygen and so on and so forth. She ended up in that persistent vegetative state where medical science said she would never recover, and she was basically just being kept alive by a machine. The interesting thing about that case that I think a lot of people don’t realize is not what happened, and not the fighting and the fact that the pope weighed in on it, and the President of the United States weighed in on it, the Supreme Court of the United States, the governors, and all the media attention, the media circus that went around it that we saw. To me that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part, or should I say shocking part is that she lived like that for thirteen years, and that’s what they didn’t talk about. That wasn’t in the news for thirteen years. The media cycle that we have in this country is unique, and they always want the flavor of the day, and they want the sensationalized story, and it’s entertainment, and I get all that, and that’s a whole other conversation to have, but the point is while the outrage and everything that happened in this country for that time, a year or so that she was in the news, she lived like that for a long time and nobody knew who she was. Nobody knew what was going on, and then you think about the fact of however many other people live like that. To the point of planning at any age, at any level, regardless of assets, regardless of family, if you have any desires to live that way or to not live that way, the only thing you can do is plan for it. If you end up falling down stairs and ended up with brain damage, and you think you’re Abraham Lincoln, you can’t take care of yourself anymore. Who makes your medical decisions for you? The example of your father. Not only that, who takes care of your finances? Who has access to your bank accounts? Who’s going to pay your bills? Where’s the money going to go? Does your house get foreclosed on because nobody can get into your account to pay the bills? So on and so forth. Those issues always exist at any stage of life because anything can happen. The world is a very crazy place, and life can be very strange and cruel, and certainly unpredictable at times. That’s one issue of it.
The second issue of it, in the older age is like the example of your father and his girlfriend, where the diseases of the mind have set in. Most people don’t study long term care and know about nursing homes and stuff like that until it hits their family, but if you pay attention to it, the fastest growing area of the long term care world, if you will, I don’t know that you call it, the industry is the memory care facilities. It’s not just nursing homes, now there’s specific memory care facilities to deal with dementia, and more commonly Alzheimer’s because we’re living so long physically, but these diseases of the mind are taking over to where we can’t do anything for ourselves. They’re horrible, tragic diseases to be inflicted with and to have, until they find a cure we’re going to keep dealing with that, but people can live for ten, twenty years with dementia, they can live for that long with Alzheimer’s, but they need a tremendous amount of care because they can’t take care of themselves.
The example of your father’s girlfriend is a prime one that I see all the time. People call me and say, “Mom’s got dementia, we need to get this stuff in place in order to, you know, I need to make medical decisions,” or to admit her in a nursing home they want a power of attorney, and I say, “Okay, great. Do you have one? Let me look at it.” “Well, no, we need you to do one, Brian,” but mom’s incompetent. That’s the reason the nursing home wants power of attorney or the bank wants power of attorney, because they don’t trust that mom can make decisions for herself anymore, because of the this disease. Yeah, you can do it, and then I have to explain to the family that once mom’s incompetent, she’s not competent to sign anything, including a power of attorney. By me generating this document, and preparing it, and doing it, that really isn’t any good because mom doesn’t know what she’s signing, so then we have to go a whole other route through the legal system in order to get a guardian and a conservator put in place for mom in order to accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish.
The cost skyrockets because now you’re talking court, and you’re talking a lot of other things versus basically some pre-planning, and the point is that whenever you realize you need these documents, when you need the document and I put the emphasis on the word need, it’s usually too late. You have to get these when you don’t need them which I know it seems strange, you don’t eat when you’re not hungry, you eat when you’re hungry, were very reactionary creatures I guess, if you will, but in this realm of the world, if you start your planning, if you start the process when you actually need it, it’s generally too late. With a lot of these things, with the dementias and things like that, until they cure it they’re not reversible so mom’s not going to get any better. Her brain function’s not going to get any better, so doctors are not going to sign letters saying, yeah, Brian, she’s okay to sign this power of attorney, she knows what she’s doing. If the doctor’s diagnosed her with dementia or with Alzheimer’s, unless it’s early, early in, she’s never going to get better from that, she’s not going to be able ever to take care of herself and make those decisions that would be legally binding and show that she’s competent.
Tamara Patzer: Why do you think people put off this type of planning? I’m listening as you’re educating me and I’m saying it makes perfect sense that I should talk to somebody and literally get my ducks in a row so that I don’t put my children through any unnecessary pain and issues if something were to happen to me. What is it about this type of planning that people have a tendency to just say, I’ll do that tomorrow or I don’t really want to think about it, I don’t want to do this right now?
Brian Douglas: I think you hit the nail on the head, Tamara, which is the I don’t want to deal with it, the ostrich, head in the sand approach. If I don’t think about it, it can’t hurt me. Death, dying, feeding tubes, incapacity, when you talk about it in those terms, they’re very unpleasant terms to talk about. Nobody wants to think of their own mortality, no one wants to think of me sitting in a nursing home, not able to do anything, maybe inflicted with Alzheimer’s where my brain still works fine but I can’t do anything else, so you’re a prisoner inside your own body. Those are really depressing and horrible topics to talk about in the greater scheme of life, but I think the education side of it, number one we don’t sit and talk about those things and make it that painful. The topics come up but we plan for those things just by going through the process, it doesn’t have to be where we sit here and go through every possible infliction you could have and every horrible thing that could happen to you. That’s not what I want to do.
I think really it’s just the issue of the mortality that I don’t want to think about dying, and then the cavalier approach that I hear more often than you would be surprised, probably, is that who cares? I’ll be dead. It’s not my problem, I’ll be dead and then someone else can deal with it, and it’s just kind of a way that people can deal with it … they address it without ever addressing it. To those people I always say, well, that’s if you’re lucky. What I mean by that, and I always kind of joke, I’m like, if you’re lucky, you’re going to go to bed one day and not wake up. As far as getting out of here, getting out … that’s about the best you can hope for, but there’s a lot of other ways that it can go, with the Alzheimer’s and things like that where you can be in a bad situation for a long time. At that point, what have you done to your family or yourself, or whatever, if you haven’t done any planning whatsoever? I always tell people, if you tell me when and how you’re going to die, I call it the it. It happens to all of us. It could be death, certainly it is death. It could be you get sued for something and we have asset protection issues because maybe you’re a doctor or a lawyer, a professional, you have higher liabilities. It could be you get in a car accident and you get sued for that because something happens. It could be dementia. It could be a young couple having their first children, and they’re thinking they’re going to have natural childbirth and something happens in the middle of this labor, and the doctor grabs you and says emergency C-section right now. That is a huge medical procedure that happens instantly. I don’t know if you’ve ever gone through it or experienced that, but all of a sudden now you’ve got the mother of the first child being cut in half essentially, to do this thing, and so the medical complications that could come from that are huge. Generally they don’t, but you have to be prepared for that if you’re that young couple. It happens to all of us, now if you can tell me what your it is, I can plan really, really well for it. It’s easy and so could you, but since we don’t know what the it is, what we have to do is build ourselves options.
That’s really what I do. In the greatest scheme of life, the best thing that I can do for anybody is give them and their family options. I don’t mean we’re going to draft a document that’s four thousand pages long, and specifically identify every option, I mean we plan and use the tools, and the documents, and the planning strategies that give those options. If it is this, we use that. If it is that, we use this. I know it sounds very vague, I guess what I’m saying, but it’s the idea of incorporating that planning in order to give those options so that whatever it comes at you, you’ve got it covered in one way, shape, or form.
Tamara Patzer: I really appreciate you educating us about this, and it is really mind boggling, and something that is really, really important to think about, so I really appreciate that. Where can we find out more about you and your services?
Brian Douglas: You can go on my website, which is BrianDouglasLaw.com, and that’s Brian with an I, as I joked earlier.
Tamara Patzer: I really appreciate this and I think everyone should take into consideration that it happens.
Brian Douglas: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to be here. I spend a tremendous amount of time educating people and families because every time I have a conversation it’s very much the reaction that I just gave you. We open eyes, and not in a bad way, but in a good way of the importance and the need to do this sort of planning. I want to leave you with my final thought which is with a little bit of planning on the front end, you can cover pretty much anything that happens to you, your family, what you want to happen, what you want to avoid, you can avoid it all with a very minor amount of planning. Generally at reasonable cost, not to talk about money, but that can also be a concern for people, compared to the emergency situation after the fact, when you call me and it’s that too late situation, like we need this now, Brian, because there’s an emergency. Generally I can’t give you what you want and it’s going to cost a lot more, and it all could have been avoided so much earlier and so much easier. Then your family, in the time of need and crisis isn’t having to worry about going to court with me or doing things like that. I can’t stress the importance of a little bit of pre-planning. An ounce of prevention, it’s worth it all. Was it Patton that said it? It’s failing to plan is planning to fail. That was what one of his battle cries that he taught his subordinates in the army.
Brian M. Douglas is the international best-selling author of “Plan Your Estate Before It’s Too Late: Professional Advice on Tips, Strategies, and Pitfalls to Avoid in Your Estate Planning” available on Amazon. Brian is a highly respected attorney with a solid reputation with his clients, colleagues, opposing counsel, and within the court system throughout the state of Georgia.
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For more information about Brian M. Douglas and estate planning visit: http://www.atlantagaestateplanning.com.