Dying of a Broken Heart

Wednesday, February 10, 2016 | 8:42 pm

Late in 2015, Football legend Doug Flutie announced that his parents had both passed away. His father had been ill and died in the hospital. Less than an hour later, his mother died as a result of a sudden heart attack. This phenomenon is called “Broken Heart Syndrome.” According to the American Heart Association’s website, an emotionally stressful event can lead to a surge of stress hormones that causes your heart to enlarge and not function properly. In most cases, Broken Heart Syndrome can be treated, but occasionally it is fatal. When it happens, these nearly simultaneous deaths have a romantic undertone—the couple was so connected that they couldn’t live without each other! I am sure this was true of Dick and Joan Flutie and their family is somewhat comforted by this thought.

Scientific and romantic explanations aside, the loss of two parents or grandparents at once leaves a family emotionally devastated. An unprepared estate plan can add another layer of distress to a family grieving. When we think of estate planning, we think of a decedent spouse and a surviving spouse. We live on the presumption that there will be someone left who will know all of those little details that keep your life running smoothly, like if the mortgage payment includes the homeowners’ insurance payment, where the burial plots are, and if the utilities are set up for autopay through the bank. But if both spouses die that “institutional knowledge” may be gone forever and those that are left will spend time and money trying to regain it.

This is where good estate planning can come as a relief. The legal aspects of planning cannot be overstated. Proper estate planning protects you if you are incapacitated, minimizes estate tax, and allows you to pick who manages your estate and how your assets are distributed.

However, there is an important organizational component to planning as well. As you prepare your plan, and perhaps return to your attorney for amendments and upkeep, you have the opportunity to ensure ownership of trust assets and also review assets that sit outside of your trust that may have beneficiary designations or are distributed in some other way.

I suggest that clients keep their estate planning documents somewhere safe and that they tell their personal representative (the person who will be acting on their behalf) where they are. Along with the documents, I advise keeping a list of ALL accounts, not just trust accounts butalso copies of deeds,information about where important documents are kept (birth certificates, marriage certificates), life insurance policies, details about your safe deposit box and names of your accountant, attorney and financial advisor. Imagine, if you and your spouse were both gone and someone had to step into your life, what information would they need?

No one likes to think about leaving loved ones, but establishing a well thought out estate plan is one of the most valuable gifts we can give our families. Formalizing your wishes with regard to your assets, your end of life and your burial remove the guesswork for a grieving family. And this is exponentially true if your family is grieving two deaths.

Alexandra-SmyserAli Smyser is an Estate Planning Attorney at the Law Offices of Donald P. Schweitzer in Pasadena, who handles all areas of including trusts, wills, probates, general and limited conservatorships, and special needs trusts. Her areas of expertise include estate plans for mature adults, as well as families with blended families or special needs. She is a member of the California State Bar, the Los Angeles County Bar and the Pasadena Bar Association. She is active with numerous community organizations.


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