John and Jane Smith are married and have four children, aged 10, 12, 16, and 18 years. Tragically, they are struck and killed on their way home from dinner one night by a drunk driver. Although they had talked about developing an estate and financial plan, they never got around to it.

John started a software development company about fifteen years ago. In just the last two years, his business started to take off and was awarded several large contracts. Jane taught biology part-time at the local community college. John and Jane were loving parents committed to raising their children well.

John and Jane’s 18-year-old son, Jack, recently graduated high school and was planning his next steps. Jack was an average student, and he never got into any trouble at school. However, despite his parents’ urging, he hadn’t shown much initiative in applying for jobs or college, or developing financial independence. John and Jane were careful with the money they give him because they feared he may not use it wisely.

If John and Jane’s deaths weren’t tragic enough, their parents are now feuding over custody of the minor children, and whether Jack should get his share of his parents’ estate now or later. Because the families cannot agree on these issues, they are forced to resolve them in court, resulting in significant expense, bitterness, and lost time.

If John and Jane had developed an estate plan, they could have avoided the conflict between their parents over custody of the children. Additionally, since they knew their son Jack better than their parents do, they were in the best position to determine when and how much of his inheritance he should receive. They probably felt that Jack wasn’t ready to receive any large lump sums of cash until he was older and more financially mature, but Jack’s grandparents may think otherwise. John and Jane could have eliminated this uncertainty by developing a trust that limited distributions of Jack’s inheritance to certain purposes, amounts, or ages.

What would happen if . . . ?

In the realm of estate planning, one should plan for the worst and hope for the best. Like our fictional characters John and Jane, many people never get around to an estate plan because it forces them to face their mortality. It can also feel like a waste of time to plan for catastrophic events like John and Jane’s tragedy that are statistically unlikely to occur. Although these types of events are unlikely, a failure to plan for them will only multiply the stress and conflict if they occur. In other words, a relatively small amount of planning will have an outsized effect on reducing stress in the event of a catastrophe.

Control Your Destiny

When you die, someone will determine how your assets are distributed and who gets custody of your minor children. If you plan properly, that someone will be you. If you don’t, that someone will likely be your state government. When a person dies without a will, he or she is said to die “intestate.” Laws on intestate succession vary from state to state.

In South Carolina, for example, if a married person with children dies intestate, his or her spouse gets half the estate, and the children get the other half. Custody decisions are usually based on the “best interests” of the child.

Even if you think the distribution of your estate and any custody issues would be straightforward, you should still make an estate plan. Upon learning of their state’s intestacy laws, people are often tempted to think, “That’s how I would distribute my stuff anyway, so I don’t need to bother with a will or trust.” However, each family is unique, and the one-size-fits-all approach of state intestacy laws may produce an outcome you never intended. A similar scenario often unfolds when people think their families would amicably determine who gets custody of any children. Simply put, it’s best to eliminate doubt and reduce potential for conflict by clearly stating who you would want to have custody of your children in your will.

If you don’t make an estate plan to distribute your assets and determine custody of children, the state will do it for you. No one knows your family better than you, so developing an appropriate estate plan will ensure that your family’s best interests are served.

A Holistic Approach to Financial and Estate Planning

At Black Cypress, we help our clients develop a financial plan and manage their assets. For our Select Clients, we take the relationship a step further and incorporate estate planning. These clients benefit because their financial plan, asset management, and estate plan are developed together, in harmony, rather than in piecemeal fashion by different entities. This harmony enables us to assist our clients in unique ways. If you would like more information about Black Cypress or our Select program, please contact us at or 843-259-2009.