Saturday, March 28, 2009

Welcome

"What now seems to you Opaque, you will make Transparent with your blazing heart."

- Ranier Maria Rilke

This blog is for my father.

I plan to touch on a wide range of topics in this blog, most of which will lead back to him, albeit in a circuitous way, because when you come right down to it, without him I wouldn't be here at all.

I've started this blog because I am concerned. I'm concerned about my family, I'm concerned about my country and I'm concerned about my planet.

I plan to talk about some of the problems I see, both specifically and generally, and I'd like to discuss some possible solutions.

One of the advantages I have as a Web Manager is that I'm given a birds-eye view into some of the more interesting uses of the Web, and have direct insight into some of the more innovative approaches that Obama's new Administration will leverage to solve some of our nation's more complex and confounding problems. "Open for Questions" uses Google Moderator, a tool that allows distributed communities to submit and vote on questions for talks, presentations and events. You can learn more about "Moderator" and other interesting apps at Google Labs, a site that showcases a few of their favorite ideas that aren't quite ready for prime time.

I want to protect myself by saying that my posts represent my own personal opinions and are not meant as a reflection on NASA.

This is a personal blog, not a professional blog.

I want to protect myself by saying that I plan to stick to the facts when I have them, and to characterize assumptions and opinions as such. When I don't have all the facts, I'll fall back on "Occam's Razor". Suffice it to say that blogs are generally understood to represent the views of the blogger, and not the blogger's friends, family members or employers.

There, that should cover me. :-)

I plan to talk about family values, and the demise of the cohesiveness and cohesion of my own family.

We are a typically fractured California family: my father had three wives, my mother had two husbands, and I have a stepbrother and some stepsisters who I really don't know very well. Most of my blood relatives live on the East Coast, so I see them perhaps once every five years or so.

It's complicated and a little confusing, and unfortunately, I think we are fairly typical in this day and age.

I plan to talk about estate laws and how and whether they should be changed to reflect modern day realities, including some processes that can facilitate those changes. Other countries are already thinking along these same lines, so I'd be surprised if our government isn't already moving forward with some of the ideas in this blog. I'd like to discuss Family Trusts, both shared and individual, and why this model is ideally suited to protecting and distributing assets for makeshift families like ours.

Advanced living trusts can be structured for complicated family situations. Remarried spouses, with children from a previous marriage, can use an advanced revocable trust to ensure kids receive their proper inheritance. This free Living Trust Special Report offers a checklist for individuals to determine if the living trust is an appropriate strategy for them.

I'd like to call your attention to this web site that serves as a warning for what can go wrong without the proper checks and balances that come with a good estate planning attorney. It's tongue in cheek, but highly relevant in these complicated times, and eerily similar to my own situation. The section on "Avoiding Impartial Outsiders" provides some rationale for using Trusts rather than Wills. Wills are inflexible, limited and largely out of use today.

Apparently my father didn't know that and/or he was given inadequate legal advice. When he remarried for the third time eight years ago, he made a decision to combine his assets with his new wife's. In the event that either one of them died, the other was to take on the role of managing their combined assets for the collective use of his new family.

For reasons that are still somewhat unclear, he chose to hire his new wife's estate planning attorney, and was apparently advised to take an imprudent and decidedly ill-conceived approach to achieving his goals. I was not involved in any of the estate planning discussions, nor any of the meetings with her attorney, so I don't have much insight into how he came to his decision. He rewrote his Will less than six months into his new marriage.

He mentioned his new Will to me only once, after it was written, when we were on a family trip in Cairo. He explained that they planned to establish a Trust that would protect and preserve their newly combined assets for their five kids in the event that either or both of them passed on. He died suddenly two years into his new marriage.

After his death in 2002, as the sole beneficiary of his estate and his life insurance policy, and the Executor of his new Will, my new stepmother took on the role of our family matriarch. Some of her "estate management" decisions are noted below.

In the six and a half years since his death, she has given me $6000 and two of his valued possessions: a Buddhist hand statue (a mudra in the teaching position) that my family acquired when I was a little girl living in Thailand, and an etching on brass of a mosque in Cairo.

She has kept everything else as her own: all of the possessions that my family acquired over the years of traveling to and living in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, my father's timeshares in Sedona and Palm Springs, his life insurance policy, his retirement benefits and his three bedroom townhouse. She sends us annual gifts on the order of $35 per occasion.

She has been his widow now three times longer than she was his wife. She has stated in writing that her plan is to share no more of his estate until her own death. She has refused to provide any of the Eskeys with short or long term loans, and leaves my father's townhouse empty for months at a time while she visits her own daughter and her grandchildren in what is now her second home. We are occasionally given access to his townhouse when she is away, but are unable to collect rental income on his property.

Rental income for comparable properties in my father's neighborhood ranges from somewhere between $2500 - $3000/month, so by conservative estimates, we are losing about $30,000 each year that my stepmother stays in the townhouse rent free. Over the course of 7 years, our loss has been on the order of $250,000.

She has established a Living Trust as per my father's wishes, but has appointed herself the sole Trustee. Their combined assets (now protected in her new Living Trust) are apparently not to be made available to any of their five kids until after her death, although I understand that she has made some small sum available for a loan to her daughter's family for household repairs.

As I have not been given any management oversight or insight into the value of my father's liquid investments and other assets, I can only speculate, but I suspect that my family has lost far more than $250,000 over the last seven years, based on my observations of my stepmother's excessive spending, wasteful habits and poor decisions in all areas of her life.

As for the overall value of my father's estate, townhomes in my father's neighborhood of the same size and approximately the same age sell for between $600,000 and $700,000 depending on the market and the condition of the property. Add to that seven years of retirement benefits, social security benefits, life insurance annuities, interest income, the estimated value of his artwork and other assets, and I estimate the 2009 value of his estate to be just over $1M.

This does not take into account the sentimental value of his estate. It is not possible for me to place a monetary value on that, but suffice it to say that in my mind, that far exceeds $1M in today's dollars.

At this time, all five kids are named as beneficiaries of her Living Trust, and she has stated that she has made only minor modifications to her Trust since it was established. I have not been given copies of any of the legal documentation, neither my father's Will nor her Living Trust, and have been given no insight into the original or current value of my father's estate.

My father's widow continues to evade all questions regarding her longer term plans for my sisters and me, and has suggested that my father left the decision as to whether or not to share any of his assets at any time with his children solely to her discretion.

Unfortunately for my family, my new stepmother lacks even the basic skills and behaviors for building and supporting a healthy family. She seems totally unaware of this simple rule: for obvious reasons, adult children should always be involved in any major family decisions that will significantly impact their lives, their sense of safety and security, and their health, welfare and well-being.

In contrast to providing a healthy model for our family, my stepmother's actions and decisions have provided us with a family life that is suggestive of having had no father (and no stepmother) at all. Her own mother died shortly before Dad did, at the age of 96, which would suggest that in all likelihood, if she leaves her current Living Trust as it is, I will not come into my inheritance and my share of my father's estate until I am 73 years old. My sisters will be 71 and 68 years old, respectively.

My father died at the age of 69, so if my life span matches his, that leaves me no time at all to enjoy any of the proceeds of his life and work, either in the form of increased financial security, or by providing myself and visiting family and friends with a comfortable home filled with memories and mementos of more than forty years of being his first-born daughter.

Sadly, the naive but well-meaning decisions my father made in his last years have led his three daughters into a situation where it would have been better for us had he neglected to write any Will at all. Based on those allocations, in a future blog, I plan to calculate how much this arrangement of "combining estates" will cost the Eskey family over the next two and a half decades if her life span matches her mother's.

As far as I can tell, for all practical purposes, my stepmother's current plan is to defraud the Eskeys of their rightful inheritance. Based on her actions, decisions and statements over the last six and a half years, I believe that she has willfully abused my father's decision to entrust his estate to her. Rather than making impartial decisions as to the appropriate allocation of their combined assets to his (and her) family, she has instead consistently leveraged his estate for her own self-serving purposes.

In addition, due to her inconsistent and infrequent communication with the Eskey girls, I do not believe that she has maintained close enough relationships with any of us to make sound decisions about when, why or how to equitably distribute my father's assets (let alone her own). In my judgment, my father's widow has proven herself to be wholly incapable of managing their separate or combined assets for the collective use of his (and her) family, as per his wishes.

This realization combined with their inadequate and somewhat hurried estate planning has placed me in the unpleasant position of working with with his (and her) super lawyer to ensure a more appropriate, modern, equitable and balanced approach to distributing my father's assets to his three daughters.

My goal is to ensure that his estate is protected over the years and that his assets remain in my own family, and are not subject to the whimsical decisions and/or errors in judgment of his third wife of two years. I have proposed two alternatives to my father's attorney based on shared and individual models for Advanced Living Trusts.

I am optimistic that we will be able to sort things out, but however this all came about, our current situation doesn't make any sense and really hasn't worked well over the years. I'm also working with our representative from the California State Bar Association who can help with this, so the wheels are finally turning in the right direction.

But take this as a warning and learn from our mistakes: even families that are as reputable as ours and fathers who are as loving as mine are not immune to errors in judgment, misinterpretations of intent, and general misunderstandings. Estate planning can be especially confusing for step-families.

Along those lines, I plan to talk about ethics and morality and the necessity for a model both inside and outside of the government that promotes transparency, accountability and open communication. I want to discuss Obama's Transparency and Open Government Memo, that states this very eloquently.

How much simpler it would have been for our family had my father taken a more collaborative approach and included his three daughters in his estate planning process. Our involvement would have provided insurance against perceived, potential or actual estate fraud and financial elder abuse, and would have led to a more appropriate and equitable arrangement from the start.

Signs of financial elder abuse were apparent early on in my father's new relationship, even before his brief marriage, but unfortunately I did not know enough to recognize them at the time. This web site provides additional information about financial elder abuse. If you suspect that a friend or a relative is the victim of financial elder abuse, please call the Adult Protective Services Hotline number at (202) 541-3950. Financial elder abuse can escalate quickly, and early intervention is the best form of protection.

In our case, in retrospect, it is my belief that my stepmother intended to defraud the Eskey family from the start and that that she willfully omitted his three daughters from my father's estate planning process. If her intentions towards us were honorable, then why did she not simply ask for our input, opinions or advice at any time during the estate planning process, given that she was such a new addition to our family?

If my new stepmother did not intend to honor my father's wishes, then why did she accept any part of his estate after such a short marriage? When he died, why did she not immediately establish a separate Trust for his three children according to the usual legal allocation, so that we could all get on with our separate lives? Alternatively, if she did intend to honor his wishes, then why did she not simply make any one of his three daughters a Trustee to her Living Trust?

If my father's new wife had no plans to make her own assets available to us, then why did she accept my father's offer to make her the sole beneficiary of the Eskey estate? When my father died, we did not need a Conservator. We were and still remain each fully capable of handling the responsibilities of managing our own inheritance.

Given that this situation has not worked out as my father had hoped, if her intentions towards us are honorable, then why will she not simply openly and transparently discuss the original or current value of the Eskey estate and the various options for establishing shared or individual Living Trusts for our family?

Why does she hide behind her attorney? Does she hope that this problem will somehow resolve itself, or that perhaps that no one will notice or care if she defrauds the Eskeys?

I have made myself available several times over the last six months in the hopes of jointly coming to a solution that works well for everyone, but to date I have had no correspondence from my stepmother that suggests a willingness to become accountable and to take responsibility for her role in creating this senseless, divisive, time consuming and ultimately unacceptable situation for the Eskey family over the last six and a half years.

I have offered to host a "Living Trust" family gathering at my home, with a visit to an estate planning attorney who works within walking distance of my house. Peggy Gale comes highly recommended by a long-term (15 years) friend who has been like a mother or a godmother to me. In the event that my father's attorney is unwilling or unable to design an Advanced Living Trust that makes sense for our family, my offer still holds and is open ended.

In a future blog, I plan to talk about my experiences as a Web Manager at a Federal Agency, and the rate of change of the web and web technology with respect to the rate of change of Web policy and internet regulations. In a nutshell, the policies can't keep up, leaving many decisions open to interpretation by governmental web managers and developers. The rule of thumb is to try to understand the intent of the law - i.e., consider what the lawmakers had in mind, consider the consequences of non-compliance, and then use your best judgment.

What was my father's intent when he re-wrote his new Will? Did he intend to disinherit his three much beloved daughters? Could my father have somehow predicted that his new wife would attempt to defraud his children of their rightful inheritance, given that her own wealth included the not only the proceeds from a long-term marriage to an attorney (including a large home in an upscale neighborhood not far from my father's townhome), but also a recent inheritance from her mother?

I will let you come to your own decisions in this regard.

What is the intent of our nation's estate laws? Are they intended to be manipulated to increase the wealth of new family members, distant relatives or family friends? Or are they perhaps intended to preserve and protect the inheritance of the rightful heirs from those who seek to abuse positions of trust with aging family members or friends?

I will let you come to your own decisions in this regard.

One of the contributing factors to our unfortunate situation is the fact that my family is scattered across the country. Along those lines I plan to talk about our interconnected planet and the need to communicate and collaborate across geographical and other boundaries and how the web can help with that.

At this time, I have some reason to believe that my stepmother intends to similarly defraud my Uncle (my father's brother) and his family. To date, I have been unable to confirm whether or not she is named as a beneficiary, Executor or Trustee of his Will, Living Trust or life insurance policy, and/or whether or not she has been named on the Titles of his properties or has access to his financial/banking accounts. My Aunt will likely need a Conservator or Guardian if my Uncle passes away first, and it is quite possible that my stepmother has positioned herself as a candidate for that role.

As such, I have created this web site as a way of rapidly communicating with our distributed family, documenting our observations, and discussing our options amongst ourselves and with other impartial outsiders and legal experts, so that we can be better prepared for situations such as this now and in the future.

Before my father died, he put all of his assets and bank accounts in my new stepmother's name. Given that they were married so late in life, that the marriage was so new, and that he had three children from a previous marriage, this was an extremely unwise decision. Again, I suspect that his new wife was the primary force behind his decision, and again, I can't say this with absolute certaintly, since none of his adult children were included in these discussions.

In any case, this explains why there was no probate for his Will. In retrospect, our family could and should have contested his new Will, but like most families, we were ill-prepared for this unexpected turn of events.

In California, all Will contests and/or lawsuits must be initiated within 120 days from the time of death. This provides very little time for families like ours to understand what happened, to learn what the various options are, and to prepare a case. It provided my family no time at all to gauge the motives of my new stepmother, so at the outset, I simply assumed that she had good intentions, and that she had our best interests at heart. I simply assumed that my father had made a good choice.

Time has proven me wrong, and I have since learned that my trust in her was naive and misplaced. Apparently, my father did not know her as well as he thought he did, and after everything that has happened to my family over the last six and a half years, today I feel that I don't know her at all. A stranger is living in my father's home, using his things, and spending his money on herself.

I simply can not understand why she feels entitled to the whole of my father's estate, life insurance policy, social security and retirement benefits after two years of marriage. What possessed her to keep our family's assets as her own? Everything is now hers: personal items, items that have sentimental value to my family, items that were acquired long before he met her, photo albums, family vacation spots, towels, sheets, dishes, jewelry, furniture.

She has shared none of it with his own family. It astounds and baffles me.

Does she not realize that I have no interest in anything that belongs to her? That my only interest is in the sentimental value of things that remind me of my long and adventurous life with my father?

I have no interest in her new "cafe set", her new kitchen supplies, her new Crate and Barrel blanket and couch, or in anything that she acquired before, during or after her brief marriage to my father. Those are hers to keep, to preserve for her own children some day as reminders of their long life with her.

It's only natural. She is not my mother, and has not even been a good friend to me over the years. At this stage in our lives, I barely know her. We share no happy memories together, and we share no interests.

In closing, I'd like to point out the "gadgets" to the left and on the bottom of this blog. Gadgets are web applications (apps) that can be shared and reused across multiple web sites, and with other blogs. One of the benefits of using "Blogger" is that some of the gadgets provide links to other "Google Apps".

I'd like to see our family start to use these simple web apps and get increasingly comfortable with sharing documents and calendars, using social bookmarks, discussing family matters in private online discussions (Google Groups), and generally experimenting more and more on the web. If Google Apps are good enough for the White House, then they're good enough for me. I am still learning too, so we can learn together.

For those who are intimidated by the web, I plan to discuss societal barriers and the limitations of technology. Technology in and of itself will not solve our problems. We are still tasked with the necessity to become active participants in the healing of some of the deeper wounds that we, as members of our extended families and our global communities, have inflicted upon each other.

In a future blog, I'd like to talk about recovery.gov, and what that means to our country, in this era of economic disaster. I plan to discuss data.gov, and the nation's plans to make our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) data available on the open networks, and some of the longer term implications of that direction.

I hope to involve others in the discussion, and to avoid blame whenever possible. I would like to stay focused on the solutions, not on the problems.

I hope that this blog will be interesting and relevant to some of you, and will be inviting enough to encourage "connected governance" of the blog itself, and "participatory learning" for myself and for those who subscribe.

I realize that I won't be able to please everyone. So be it. Action will always be more controversial than inaction.

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