This article was also published in our sister publication in Berkeley, The Monthly.
One small silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Richmond estate planning attorney Sara Diamond, is that many people have finally done their estate planning, creating revocable trusts, powers of attorney, and healthcare directives.
For those putting off making their estate plans, the COVID pandemic created the urgency that forced many of us to confront the reality of one’s own mortality. We all watched the news early in the pandemic, before vaccines became available, and heard the heartbreaking stories about people being put on ventilators and dying alone without the comfort of their families.
Planning for what happens to one’s estate after death is a chore that people often put off. Few of us want to think about our mortality at any age. Many of us don’t look forward to making difficult decisions about how to split our assets after our deaths.
Some assume they don’t need an estate plan and think it’s only necessary for the wealthy. They own a home but have little savings and their two bedroom/two bath is certainly not what they’d consider to be an “estate”.
Some feel that it’s bad luck to even create a will.
But if you own a home anywhere in the Bay area, you likely have some equity. You may be surprised to find that the State of California has a low bar for deciding the value of an estate that is subject to probate.
In California, if you own assets worth $166,250 or more (excluding things like retirement accounts that have designated beneficiaries), then whether you have a Will or not, your estate – that is what you own at the time of your death—will be subject to a lengthy and expensive court proceeding called probate.
In order to better understand why estate planning and avoiding probate is important, we had a discussion with Sara Diamond, who is a longtime Bay area resident and estate planning attorney whose practice focuses on helping people create wills, trusts, powers of attorney and health-care directives.
Sara Diamond isn’t your typical lawyer. In addition to working as a lawyer since 2004, prior to that, she earned her doctorate in Sociology from UC Berkeley and was formerly an investigative journalist and political author. Currently, while working as a lawyer, she also studies and practices astrology, gives readings and writes a twice-monthly column about astrology.
The Monthly: What is estate planning all about?
Sara Diamond: There are two prongs to it, and they both involve the creation of a set of legally valid documents.
The first prong has to do with putting in writing your wishes as to who will inherit what you own, after your death, which is called an estate, whether that is real property (fixed property including land and buildings) or even just a car and a checking account.
Mostly people know about wills which are simple documents that state who you want to leave your money and other property to. But there’s more to it than that.
“In California, if you own assets worth $166,250 or more (excluding things like retirement accounts that have designated beneficiaries), then whether you have a Will or not, your estate – that is what you own at the time of your death—will be subject to a lengthy and expensive court proceeding called probate. We avoid that by having individuals and couples make a revocable living trust.”
If you don’t state in a legally valid writing who you want to inherit what you own, the California Probate Code tells us who it will be. If you have no spouse or children, next in line will be your parents, grandparents, siblings and so on. If you have no relatives or relatives you care to leave anything to, then you need to state in a writing who should receive what you own. That can be friends or charities.
The second part of estate planning – which I consider more important than who gets what you own after you die – is making sure that you have legally appointed someone to handle your finances and health care decision-making if you ever get to a point where you can’t do those things for yourself. Those concerns are addressed with documents called a Power of Attorney and an Advance Health Care Directive.
The Monthly: Is estate planning just for people who’ve inherited or somehow amassed a lot of wealth?
Sara Diamond: Not at all. Everyone who is 18 years or older needs to have a Power of Attorney and an Advance Health Care Directive. I have some smart clients who, when their children reach 18, they have them come to me to make these documents, making sure that their parents will continue to have legal authority to help them if they are, for example, in an accident or are ill and lose their mental capacity.
Beyond that, very basic estate planning is needed by most people. If someone owns a house, regardless of not having paid it off, its fair market value, in the Bay Area, is well over $166,250, meaning that it will be the subject of a probate proceeding after their death, or after the death of a second spouse if they are married. The probate courts are packed full of cases involving mom and pop who owned little more than their house and didn’t know that they needed to have a revocable living trust to make sure their children would easily inherit their property.
Beyond that, we need trusts and wills to make sure that we get to have our wishes enforced as to who will inherit what we own, whether that is relatives, friends, or favorite charities.
The Monthly: How long have you worked as an estate planning lawyer, and how’d you get into it?
Sara Diamond: I started my office in 2004. Prior to starting law school at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco in 2000, I had a previous career as an academic, journalist and political author. I earned my Ph.D. in Sociology at UC Berkeley, and during the 1980s and 1990s, I wrote and published four books about right-wing political movements. In the 1980s and 1990s, and until fairly recently, very few people were paying attention to the rise of the Christian Right as the dominant faction of the Republican Party. What we have now in terms of far-right and conspiracist political movements was all underway in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and I was at that time working with a handful of other people to try to stop it. Needless to say, we were not successful.
When I completed my Ph.D. in the early 1990s, I was unable to get more than part-time positions teaching Sociology locally, which is what I really wanted to do. In 2000, I made the decision to stay in the Bay Area and go to law school in order to have a sustainable job. When I finished law school, I started my own office and built it up from scratch.
The Monthly: Where’s your office located?
Sara Diamond: My law office is located in a beautiful office building across from the Hilltop Mall in Richmond. The mall closed during the pandemic and will one day be redesigned into something else. I moved my office to Richmond in 2019, after having an office in Berkeley before that for many years.
The Monthly: Who are some of your favorite clients?
Sara Diamond: I like working with people who need an estate plan, just like anyone else, but who hadn’t given it much thought until recently. I work with a lot of single women who want to make sure their children won’t have to go through probate. I also work with a lot of couples whose adult kids get along just fine and it would be a shame if they had to go through a lengthy probate proceeding just to get title to their parents’ house after they die.
I have a very diverse group of clients, from Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond on up into Vallejo and even some people from Marin, San Francisco, and the South Bay.
The Monthly: How has the pandemic affected your business?
Sara Diamond: I work mostly from home and have just used an office as a place to meet up with clients. I was fortunate that at the start of California’s shelter-in-place period, I was able to convert all my systems to working remotely. This has enabled me to have clients from outside the immediate Bay Area.
I think the pandemic has made a lot of people more aware of their own mortality. I’ve had an increased number of clients. In 2020, I had a lot of health care workers as clients, especially nurses.
The Monthly: Do you accept legal insurance?
Sara Diamond: Yes, many of my clients use legal insurance that they get as part of a benefits package from their employer. Some have told me that they didn’t at first realize they even had this benefit and were happy to discover they did.
The Monthly: What’s one of the favorite parts of your job?
Sara Diamond: I prefer self-employment. I like spending most of my day in solitude and in a quiet place. I’m an extreme morning person and start work very early. The flexibility of my work schedule allows me to continue to pursue my interests and ongoing education in other fields.
The Monthly: What are your other interests?
Sara Diamond: I’m a lifelong practitioner of meditation and a student in several spiritual traditions. I’m also a student of astrology and related metaphysical arts. I take a lot of courses with renowned teachers, all on-line these days. I write astrological essays for an on-line publication, and I give readings for people upon request. I’m on the board of a local astrology organization.
I also have a big home and family life, with gardening, cooking, crafts and taking care of rescue dogs.
Sara Diamond can be reached for an estate planning consultation by calling 510.241.4489 or by emailing her. Her office is located at 3150 Hilltop Mall Road, Suite 29,Richmond, CA 94806.