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Q: What happens when parents of minor children die together without a will?

“The deadliest transportation accident in nearly a decade” happened in New York recently– one where 20 lives were taken instantly in a horrific limousine crash upstate. The limo driver and all 17 passengers were killed upon impact along with two pedestrians when the limo reportedly barreled down a hill, left the road, hit the pedestrians and slammed into a shallow creek bed near a busy market place. The 17 passengers were all friends and family on the way to a 30th birthday celebration for one on board. One family lost 4 sisters—one being the birthday girl.

Post-accident reports highlight issues of liability and hint of the potential for wrongful death actions against the company that owned the limousine which reportedly “had a record of repeated safety violations”. But important New York estate planning issues were not thoroughly discussed.

While it’s true that the estates of those killed and their closest surviving relatives may have wrongful death claims against responsible party(s), there were two particular sentences that stood out in an article where a reporter interviewed the devastated father whose four grown daughters and three sons-in-law perished in the crash:

“One of their daughters had a will. The others did not.”

Reportedly, three of his very young grandchildren were orphaned that day and the long-term arrangements for their upbringing were being worked out. Other children also reportedly lost their parents in the crash.

No one – especially young parents or newlyweds like those who perished– thinks they are going to die so young, much less that they may die simultaneously. But the reality is that many people do, or they may become incapacitated, so it’s important to have an estate plan in place by a skilled estate planning attorney in order to protect your loved ones, especially if minor children are involved.

A will is the legal document wherein you designate legal guardians of your minor children (as well as provide for the distribution of the assets of your estate). Without a will, the court will decide who will raise your children– and it may not be the people you would have chosen if you had a will prepared. Wills allow for successor guardians to be designated in case the first choice is unwilling or unable to serve.

Leaving orphaned children without a will adds another layer of pain to an unimaginably difficult loss as the time and expense of guardianship petitions and court intervention is an additional burden–especially if several (or no) parties step-up to act as guardians.

While there is likely much we will learn in the coming months about necessary changes in the limousine industry regulations, one immediate takeaway of the tragedy is the wake-up call for so many of us who have put off getting estate plans in place but have loved ones relying on us to do so. Our hearts go out to the families affected by this terrible tragedy.

If you need assistance creating an estate plan or modifying an existing one, the estate planning attorneys at Merlino & Gonzalez can help you. Contact us today to schedule a consultation. Not one day. Today.

From our offices in Staten Island, New York, and East Brunswick, New Jersey, we represent clients in those states in all matters of trust and estate law as well as real estate law.