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Holly Geerdes. (Photo: Geerdes)

Life Health > Life Insurance > Life Planning Strategies

Preparing for Disaster: Legal and Financial Planning for Clients Who Go Missing

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What You Need to Know

  • Immediately after Ian hit, Florida officials reported that 10,000 people were missing.
  • Late last week, at least three people were still classified as missing, but it may be years before those individuals are declared dead.
  • Holly Geerdes, a top estate planner, says trusts can help families navigate the chaos of such situations.

Hurricane Ian has raised a sobering question for life insurance agents and financial advisors: What happens to a family if a crime or a natural disaster causes a breadwinner to disappear?

Getting authorities to declare a missing person dead can take years, and life insurers typically insist on receiving a death certificate before they pay a claim.

As of Friday, officials in Lee County, Florida, reduced the number of people known to be missing as a result of Hurricane Ian to three, from about 10,000 on Sept. 29, the day after Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida.

But the original count drew attention to the plight of spouses, children and others affected by uncertainty about whether a family member has died.

Holly Geerdes, the founding attorney at the Atlanta-based Estate Law Center, said in an email interview that the best way for agents and advisors to prepare clients and their loved ones for that kind of situation is to encourage clients to work with attorneys to set up trusts.

“The benefits of creating a trust and funding the trust are to assign a trusted family member as trustee, so that they have access to the assets to use for the care of the minor children, instead of having to go through the legal probate process, which is long and expensive and chaotic for the children,” Geerdes said.

A trust attorney can set up a trust in such a way that, if the parents are found to be alive and competent, legal control of the trust will go back to the parent(s) who created the trust, she added.

For a family affected by a parent’s disappearance, trust planning quality is critical.

When an attorney sets up a well-designed trust, “then the law in different states does not matter,” Geerdes said. “However, if you fail to set up your overall kind of trust correctly or not at all, then each state will differ on how to handle the assets and the children through the court legal system.”

Geerdes recommends making a family’s trust the contingent owner of the policy so that a successor trustee other than the parents can manage and control the policy until the parents are found.

Holly Geerdes. (Photo: Geerdes)


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