I recently spoke with Whitney Allen, an attorney (and fellow Villanova Law graduate), author of “Running in Trauma Stilletos”, certified Grief Educator, mom of two beautiful little boys and widow of Hatboro’s beloved K-9 Officer, Officer Ryan Allen. I took the opportunity to talk with Whitney about the difficulties of advocating for a loved one without estate planning documents. At the age of 35, Ryan suffered from a very rare and severe reaction to a bee sting leading to cardiac arrest and an anoxic brain injury. After the loss of her husband, Whitney decided to stop practicing law to follow her new calling. In addition to writing a memoir, she worked to become a Certified Grief Educator to help those seeking to recreate themselves and grow through grief. In Whitney’s words, “the world doesn’t stop for your grief.”
Advocating for a Loved One without Estate Planning Documents
I spoke with Whitney about her experience navigating the legal process before and after the loss of her husband while also trying to take time to grieve and heal. She shared some challenges they faced, as well as planning that they had done well. In addition to experiencing the loss of her husband, Whitney had the added complexity of helping their young son understand this loss and having a newborn at home.
Whitney was faced with challenges trying to advocate for Ryan, making medical decisions for him, and accessing certain financial information. At their young ages, they hadn’t yet put any estate planning documents in place. They also hadn’t had the difficult conversations about their end-of-life wishes and Ryan didn’t have a Living Will to direct her. Though she was his wife, she didn't have the authority to handle certain matters.
During an already overwhelming time, Whitney had to turn to her attorneys for help. Through her attorneys, Whitney filed for an emergency guardianship so that she could become Ryan’s legal guardian. Becoming a guardian is often a costly and lengthy process that can typically be avoided if there are Powers of Attorney documents in place. In this case, Whitney was successful in obtaining an emergency guardianship because of Ryan's condition. Being his legal guardian allowed Whitney to break down the legal barriers to finally be able to make decisions for Ryan and have access to his information. She was pressured with making decisions on Ryan’s behalf and she had to trust that she was making the best decisions that she could.
Whitney and Ryan had done some other planning after they were married that were helpful after his passing. This included combining their bank accounts, updating beneficiary forms, creating a list of account log-in information, and communicating about their finances. By doing so, Whitney avoided many more unnecessary hurdles after Ryan's passing. Often, young couples come into the marriage with separate assets and just "don't get around" to updating or combining their assets. Delaying doing so overcomplicates the process if the assets were otherwise intended to go to the surviving spouse. Fortunately, Whitney and Ryan didn't put this off.
Many young families delay estate planning and financial planning thinking that it’s not critical at their young ages, but we know that death does not discriminate based on age.
Whitney’s top tips for planning at a young age:
1. Meet with an estate attorney to create an estate plan. Don’t put it off.
2. Work with your attorney to determine whether to make your assets joint with your spouse or list your spouse as beneficiary of certain accounts.
3. Make sure your beneficiary information is up-to-date.
4. Create a shared document, either on paper (in a locked safe) or digitally (with encryption), with all log-in information and a list of assets, liabilities and monthly expenses.
5. Have the difficult conversations about end-of-life wishes and funeral wishes.
6. Look into obtaining a life insurance policy if your family's financial situation would be harmed after a loss and make sure your beneficiary form is completed properly.
Recreating Yourself after a Loss and Working with Whitney
In the course of our conversation, Whitney honestly stated “losing someone is hard.” It wasn’t her words that hit me, but the tone of her voice. Such a simple, raw truth, and yet a reminder, to stop and give yourself grace as you navigate a loss. Whitney believes that grief is a consequence of a loss and we can only move forward. She now works with clients to help them focus on their grief and recreate their futures. While her own experience ignited her role as a grief educator and allows her to relate to her clients, she prides herself on being able to separate her grief from a client’s grief. She is a resource for those who are struggling to figure out how to move forward.
Thank you, Whitney, for continuing to share your story and for being a compassionate resource for others.