Ruby Reyes reflects on how a trust fund changed how she viewed estate planning.
Estate planning is the process of making a plan in advance, naming the people or organizations you want to manage your belongings after you pass away, and taking steps now to make sure your plan is carried out. About 33% of U.S. adults have a will or plan for their estate, but just 27.5% of Black Americans have one. No one wants to think about losing a loved one, friend, or community member, but having a plan for their estate is one less thing to worry about when the time comes. For Black and Brown families, estate planning can ensure a seamless transfer of wealth and assets for generations to come.
In this edition of the WIRE, Ujima member Ruby Reyes, dives into her experience with estate planning in her family, and its far-reaching implications.
My siblings and I became “trust fund babies.” Our family is not a country club, a private school legacy-type of family. We’re much more likely to shop at flea markets or thrift stores out of necessity. I grew up on a small family farm in Texas, which my parents bought when I was five months old. My mother had been working as a paraprofessional in schools and took her pension out to make the down payment.
The catalyst for ascent into elitism was my father’s decision to trim a tree on the farm by himself, which he fell out of. He ended up breaking his hip in three places and his femur. At that point, my parents were both 77 and getting older. My father’s fall was a huge reminder of the reality of dealing with death. I often joked that I expected them to be immortal because I was afraid of dealing with the idea that my parents would eventually die. No dark sense of humor or signed documents could ever prepare me for the feeling of an irreversible clock ticking towards catastrophe.
As my parents progressed in their age and my father started physical therapy, I talked to a few friends and learned that the most comprehensive way of dealing with our family farm, and pretty much everything if they were to die, is a family trust.
As the archetype middle child, I am the most responsible sibling and did not want to spend six to eight months in probate, if and when my parents were to pass away. I worked to avoid terrible things from happening by preparing, rather than just hoping they don’t. I’ve learned to set things up to avoid a mess because it was easier than cleaning up mistakes later — a job that often fell on me as the “responsible one.”
When I was home in the fall working on renovations to make the farm more handicap accessible, I told my parents we would be dealing with this estate planning. I told them they needed to decide what they wanted to do about the farm and their assets. I suggested that everything be left to my nephew, their only grandchild. I threatened that if they had not decided what they wanted to do by the time I got home for Christmas, then I would be moving forward with that decision. The threat was made and I left them sitting in awkward silence so they knew that decisions needed to be made by the time I got home.
While in Boston, I called several estate planning attorneys in Texas and set-up an appointment with one of them. Then Christmas came. I sat with my Aunt at our family get together, and she asked me how the renovations on the farm were going. I told her about my other plans. She said she had a trust already established and told me to come over to the house to see her documents. So I did.
She walked me through everything; it felt so comprehensive. Then she gave me the business card of the financial firm and mentioned a big luncheon for clients — she wanted me to join her and my Uncle in attending.
I called the financial services firm the next day and set up our appointment. We walked in on a Monday and sat for two hours, where they explained everything to me and my parents. A family trust is basically where you put family assets. For us, it was basically the farm and my parents’ bank accounts. My parents became the trustees of the Reyes Family Revocable Trust. It is revocable because you can change it to add more things. The parts of the trust included other really important documents including trust documents, statutory power of attorney forms for each of my parents should something happen to one of them, medical forms, and a last will and testament.
Basically, the trust designates how their assets will be divided amongst the three children, when they both pass. If one of them passes before the other, then the trust goes to that parent. My siblings and I don’t really have access to their assets, until they both pass. The last will and testament is included in case my parents forget to put something in the trust, whatever is forgotten will automatically go into the trust and be divided amongst the siblings. If they forget to put things in the trust, I will have to go to probate, but the last will and testament makes it so that probate decisions are easily made and everything goes into the trust, which has already been divided. It’s like a back up plan on a back up plan.
After two hours, which included an explanation of how the trust works, my parents figured out what percentages of the assets each sibling was getting. I had printed out a copy of the farm’s deed from the city clerk’s office. My father then asked about his dog, Loba. Just to be clear, Loba wasn’t considered one of our siblings and didn’t make the cut. His sense of humor wasn’t affected by his fall.
I wrote a check for what it cost for all the paperwork. It was not as expensive as I thought it would be. I justified the expense in the saving of time and stress of having to go through probate or arguing with family members.
We scheduled our document signing for Friday. Our homework was to get the accounts and balance statements for all of their different random accounts. We did that and showed up Friday morning. Two hours after a lot of document signing, it was all done. We were trust fund babies and the huge sense of relief was worth every penny.
I then did the work of handling family politics. I made sure to ask my mother a series of questions in front of my sister. Did she feel like she made the decisions behind the trust? Yes. Did she feel like she was coerced into anything? No. Was she happy with how everything was done? Yes.
In this way, I couldn’t be accused later on of forcing my parents into anything. I realized that the additional comfort of creating trust when my parents were still very much aware of what they are doing was important. I didn’t want to feel like I had convinced them of anything if they were to become mentally handicapped later on.
My parents ended up going to the luncheon with my Aunt and Uncle. My Mom said they were a handful of Latiné families there and everyone else was white. It made me realize how Latiné families– like my own — rarely if ever, do things like planning for the finances of death. I know when my parents pass, I am going to be a mess, but at least this part is not going to be an added stress. I feel comfort and relief in knowing that their wishes will be carried out when the catastrophic alarm clock goes off.
Ruby Reyes is the Director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance (BEJA) and an Ujima member based in Boston.