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Nearly five years ago, I was inspired to launch Expat Happy Hour because I couldn’t find resources that told the truth about life abroad. Experiencing it myself and working with the globally mobile community, I knew the Instagram-filtered photos and candy-coated discussion didn’t match reality.
Yes, expat life is magical, adventurous, intriguing, and fulfilling. But it’s also exhausting, intricate, isolating, and messy. And so, I became determined to address ALL topics on Expat Happy Hour, including the unsexy ones that never make it to most dinner party conversations or social media feeds.
To conclude our series that answers tough questions expats love to avoid, we’re talking about planning ahead for the worst-case scenario — death and incapacitation. And considering we’ve collectively just gone through a global pandemic, these subjects feel vividly relevant.
It’s my honor to welcome Ifeoma Ibekwe to help us get comfortable with the inevitable. Iffy’s an author, estate planning attorney, and business owner whose practice focuses on intergenerational wealth transfer and legacy building with effective wills and trusts.
Iffy leads her namesake law firm with a mission to empower women and normalize estate planning. Her knack for uncomplicating legal jargon demystifies these essential matters and brings them to the attention of individuals this area has historically ignored.
This week, Iffy shares her top tips and explains why estate planning is an act of love. An important subject for anyone, it’s especially critical for those living abroad.
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- Misconception that only the rich need wills
- When a country doesn’t recognize your relationship
- Relieving others of having to make tough decisions for you
- Why estate planning wasn’t designed for women
- The superstition of a death ticket
Listen to the Full Episode
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Full Episode Transcript:
Hello. It is 9:00 am in New York, 4:00 pm in Johannesburg, and 9:00 pm in Bangkok. Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour. This is Sundae Schneider-Bean from www.sundaebean.com. I am a solution-orientated coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations. I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
Quick. What images pop in your head when I say the words, “Estate planning”? Someone eldery? Perhaps rich? Something for other people? Me too.
And that’s exactly why we have to talk about it.
Welcome to the third of a three-part series on tough questions expats love to avoid. Today we are joined by Ifeoma Ibekwe to answer the question “Do I need to have an estate plan?”. You might recall last week with Angela Weinberger in EP253 Repatriation Ready and our first in the series, EP252: Expat Power Couples with Yvonne Quahe, we asked, “Whose Career Is it? Yours, Mine or Ours?” Check those episodes out, 253 and 252 if you missed them.
Let’s dive into the tough question this week, “Do I need to have an estate plan?”
To be honest, I don’t even want to think about this question. So it is exactly under the category of one’s I like to avoid. I have learned so much in this interview and I learned how avoiding this topic serves no one. And I can’t wait to share it with you because I am sure you will learn as much as I did. Our guest helps us:
- Challenge preconceptions that estate planning is for the rich or just for the elderly
- Break down what people think estate planning is, vs what it actually is.
- Understand why this topic is especially important for those who live abroad
- And perhaps the most important, how estate planning is actually a huge act of love and an act of correcting social justice
Let me tell you more about Attorney Ifeoma Ibekwe as we dive in. Otherwise known as Iffy, is known as an estate planning attorney evangelist for intergenerational wealth transfer and legacy building with effective wills and trusts. She activates intentional women so they can take agency over their lives and build impactful legacies. As a Black businesswoman and attorney, she is not, “Your garden-variety estate planning attorney.” She wishes to provide services to those who her area of the law has historically ignored.
Iffy explains that being a unicorn does not mean she only serves people of color and/or women, but it does mean she actively seeks to serve this demographic.
I personally have had the pleasure of engaging with iffy in other contexts and can attest to her brilliance, big heart and sense of humor. Have a listen.
Sundae: Welcome to Expat Happy Hour, Iffy. I am so happy that you have joined me today.
Iffy: Sundae, I am so happy to be on your podcast. I cannot even begin to tell you.
Sundae: This is going to be good. So listeners, get ready. I have had the pleasure of watching Iffy in action and she’s amazing. So really happy to have you here today. I have to be really honest, Iffy, when I heard what you did, there was like this and this immediate emotional reaction of, I don’t know, maybe denial and defense like, “I don’t need that,” and, “Oh, I don’t want to do that.” But really deep knowing that it’s something that all of us, especially people like me who have kids, and, 40 plus need to talk about right? Estate planning.
Sundae: So, I knew that, and then when I went to your website, everything changed for me. Because when I heard you talk, and I saw what you were doing online, I realized I have this idea of estate planning, is like people with Colonial houses and super rich and fancy, but what you’re talking about is estate planning is actually about passing on intergenerational wealth or security, right? Potentially supporting causes that mean the most to you, even after something were to happen. And to create security for your family, right? These are all amazing things and suddenly when you framed it like that, I’m like, “Oh, this is something I should really pay attention to.”
Iffy: And one of the most important parts and I know we’ll get into it, is health care agency. Making decisions about your health so that other people don’t have that authority to make them because you just chose not to and that’s independent of money, children, causes, it’s you, literally it’s about you.
Sundae: I didn’t even think about that in terms of, part of estate planning and right now, during the global pandemic, I can’t think of anything more important to organize, right?
Iffy: Yes, yes, actually been very good for business. I’m not gonna lie.
Sundae: Well, but you’ve created security for people, right?
Iffy: Yeah. Absolutely.
Sundae: So tell me a little bit about how did you get to this place? Because that’s not something I would ever think of, when I was considering career options, estate planning. How did you get to do what you’re doing?
Iffy: Yes, I love that you talked about the emotions that come up are resistance and denial. I also get people in my office who feel shame, embarrassment for not knowing, not understanding, having a lack of clarity, trauma from dealing with a parent and the cleaning up of their estate. I went to law school with the intention of becoming an education lawyer. So I wanted to work with students. I didn’t even know what that meant. I just wanted to work in the school system, but not teach the children, right? And do that type of law. So, even when I was in law school, and I’m learning about trusts and estates, I’m like, “What am I? A Hilton, who do I know, a Rockefeller? How is this — I don’t know anyone that this is remotely related to.”
And so even as a student going through courses, taking the bar exam in this subject area was like, “This is not for me.” And I never thought that I would ever own first of all my own practice and that my practice would be in estate planning. So, for the first 11 years, I did School Law in various capacities. I did corporate nonprofit contracts. It’s related things, right? And then, I ended up getting fired from my job after 10 years. At my current job, I kept my kids in the on-site daycare, part of the reason I stayed for so long is because I could bring my kids to work with me every day. And one of the mothers at that daycare asked me if I did wills because she worked at a financial planning firm and the lawyer that they were referring clients to was putting the wrong names on wills at the signings.
Iffy: And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I can already do better than that,” not really knowing why, you know, that area of law would be what I’d go to. That’s how I started.
Sundae: Well, the thing, what’s coming to me too and when I think about a will, I am not right now thinking about that piece of paper and what it means, I’m thinking about my mom and dad just said that they got their affairs in order and I’m outing one of my family members right now, but one of my family members was like, “Oh my God, do not even tell me about that.” And, tears, it’s just like this idea of a will. You’re not getting your legal affairs in order, you’re confronting your mortality.
Sundae: And then someone’s screwing up the names. This is a really vulnerable moment for people.
Iffy: Horrible, if you think about how horrible that would be, if I was at Sundae’s will signing and I’m like, “All right, Janet, so…” And you’re like, “Who’s Janet?” You’ve gotten the nerve up, contacted a lawyer, thought about the decisions of who would take your children if something happened to you and figure out your health care decisions and then they can’t get your name right? I mean, can you imagine the absolute shock and horror and distrust in the rest of the document? So I mean, that was the impetus for getting into the area though. It’s like, “Oh. That guy’s got a job. I can do better than that.”
Sundae: So you decided to go further and it sounds like it just snowballed from there. I need you to talk to me like an eight-year-old because I glaze over when anything is around like tax or legal or accounting, I’m gone. So please and I know I’m not alone. I’m hoping I’m not alone. Can you tell us a little bit about estate planning? As I said, it often sounds like it’s fancy or for wealthy people. But I know that from you that it’s not, so tell us more. What is the real point of estate planning?
Iffy: Just because my disclaimer, my lawyer disclaimer. I am an attorney in the United States. I know you have listeners all over the world. Okay? Estate planning is a worldwide tool that you use. Okay. So in the United States, if you are 18 years old and you have the ability to make decisions because you are considered an adult, you need an estate plan.
Every single person in the United States has an estate. It’s called an estate. So it doesn’t matter if you are broke. If you only have debt, if you have no children, if you don’t feel like you have enough assets, if you don’t own a home, none of those things matter because when you pass away, someone is going to have to shut down your life. And that means they go to court, “They say this person has died. These are their belongings. These are their debts. These are their taxes.” You can’t avoid death and taxes, right? And so estate planning is the process of getting all that information together. So that if somebody has to do that on your behalf, your executor, or personal representative is what we call it in the states, they have instructions. I want my stuff to go here. My children to be taken care of, in this way, my health to be determined this way. Because it only it not only occurs in death, if you do have decisions that are made in and kept incapacitation as well.
Sundae: Well, this is like triggering me because for a while in my family, we brought this up to my father, he has land because he’s a farmer and if he’s listening to this right now, he’s going to be chuckling and having coffee in the front entryway, I’m sure. But he would always say to us, “If anything ever happened to us. The key is in the fire safe.” I’m like —
Iffy: Not enough dad.
Sundae: You know, I’m like, “Land maps?” I have no idea, no idea. So what I’m hearing is estate planning is actually taking care of your loved ones so that if something were to happen to you, it would give them the space to actually grieve and not have to deal with all the uncertainties that come, if those affairs are not in order.
Iffy: Bingo! And remember it’s not just death. It’s incapacitation too. So if something happens to you and you’re not dead, how do you want to be treated?
Iffy: So you want your mom’s fighting with your dad, your sister fighting with your husband because you left, no instructions because that’s what you see. And your dad’s example is such a good one. Here he is, a land owning man. Okay. Who probably came up in a generation where they don’t talk about their finances and share all that they’re building. He passes away, you have to hire a lawyer and you’re like, “Mom, where is all the stuff?” She might be like, “Dad handled it. I don’t know.” So what do you do? You wait till stuff is like coming in the mail. “Oh, he must have an account because he got a bank statement from here.” If you can get in your email, maybe he’s getting emails. If there are bills that aren’t paid. Maybe you start getting past due notices.
Instead of being able to grieve. It’s a nightmare and you’re paying somebody to help you figure it all out, rather than have your parents sit down and give you all that data, so that you can help, right? And know where everything is and what they want to do with it.
Sundae: Well my hair is sticking up on my hand right now because I’m thinking, how do you do that when you don’t even live in the same country as your family?
Iffy: Hmm. You have conversations.
Sundae: And I also know, there are a lot of women whose husbands have the assignment abroad or wives or whatever relationship dynamic there is and their partner passes away suddenly and they’re locked out of the bank accounts and they’re in Abu Dhabi.
Iffy: It’s awful. It’s awful. Can I just speak to that? And if you’re listening and you live overseas. If you’re someone who is domiciled in another country, which means like you have a home base, but you’re living somewhere else because of your assignment, you are going to have to take into account that you need a lawyer where you’re from and a lawyer wherever you go, do your estate planning. So if you move every three years, it’s time to look at everything again in that country. How does it work? How do I make sure that I’m on the bank accounts? How do I make sure that I’m the beneficiary? Do you live in a place where, if your spouse or partner is the only name, do they recognize you as an unmarried person? You might be moving through the world thinking, we have this agreement. But does that stand up for having a right to claim the body? If something were to happen in that country?
And as much as we hate talking about how horrific that would be, there are examples of people that, you know, who have been in situations where they have not had access to make healthcare decisions because they are not a person of record in the United States, our privacy laws. So you aren’t even able to access other people’s records in that way. And so who’s helping you, if your family is overseas, but you live in Abu Dhabi? I used to live in the United Arab Emirates in the 80s. I live in Dubai. What are the rules in Abu Dhabi.
Sundae: Right? And what if you’re in a same-sex couple and your marriage isn’t legally recognized. Now, you’re putting yourself at risk if you’re in a place, that same-sex couples are not welcome, right?
Iffy: Or recognized.
Sundae: Or recognized, right? Yeah. This is so hard.
Sundae: Legally, exactly. There’s a lot and I have a very close friend who lost her husband, and she thought everything was going to be easy peasy. And it was actually in one of the states that you operate from, and she said, it wasn’t a given that everything would naturally go to her and her son. There was a lot of paperwork that was needed to go through and I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” In the worst of times?
Iffy: Yes, and I am from Texas. We have community property laws, which means whatever you have before marriage and keep separate as yours that gets divided in a certain way. Whatever you have in marriage is yours and your spouse’s, and that gets divided in a certain way, unless you have a prenup or a postnup, right? A postnuptial agreement or prenuptial agreement. To complicate it all, if you do nothing, each and every state in the US has a way to disseminate your property. They decide also, if something happens to your kids and you don’t have anything in place for them, what’s going to happen.
Sundae: I’ve seen it happen —
Iffy: It’s not a given that your mom gets them.
Sundae: I’ve seen that happen. It is so hard. And, we’ve seen how the state decides and you’re like, “What? The state decides? Not the family”
Iffy: They have to do something with everyone because everyone has an estate and in order to sell property or to pay taxes, you have to figure out, “Okay, where’s the next relative? Where’s this going?” Right? And because so many people are likely to do it, they have a scheme to disseminate your property and figure out what to do with you.
Sundae: So, the original idea I thought we were talking about with a state, like, any money or bank accounts or property. But as I’ve learned more, I’m hearing decisions around your health, if something were to happen, which I think right now is so in people’s minds, guardianship of your kids, I’m hearing. And then a will. And I have to be really honest, this idea of a will, one you’re just confronting your own mortality. But then when you’re young or you’re mid aged, you’re like it’s too soon for a will. It really feels too soon. And I know that it’s not, technically but how do you support people with that process?
Iffy: It’s not a ticket to death. Okay, making a will and I can say that because I do it every day and I have had hundreds and hundreds of clients and I haven’t lost one. I have lost clients before they became clients or signed on. And maybe it’s because my practice is still young and that’s definitely a road that I will walk later on but no one has died at the signing. No one.
Sundae: *laughter* It’s like tempting karma or fate or something.
Iffy: You’re not, you’re preparing to not leave those who you love a mess.
Iffy: It’s actually a very selfless act to say, “If anything happens to me. God forbid. I want to live to the ripe old age of whatever, I want you to grieve me. And remember me with fondness and not have bitterness that you never got this paperwork done. And now I have to leave my country and go somewhere else. Leave my state and go figure out your stuff. Leave my job, leave my children and pay for attorneys and try and figure this out and be upset with you rather than just grieve you.” And I can tell you do probate, which is the other side of the state line? If you don’t do it? If you don’t hire an attorney before you will hire an attorney afterwards, especially if your loved one has property that you might be inheriting, we do that side two! And I’ll tell you there is resentment there. Okay, so if you can think past what it means for your mortality, and all the extensional crises that you’re having thinking, “Oh my gosh, who’s going to get my computer.” Nobody probably wants it by that time. It’s probably obsolete. “Who’s gonna get my home or my land. And why?” And get through that with the help of an attorney who does that every day? It’s going to be great for whoever you’re blessing with that, right? Or whoever you’re making a decision for so they’re not like, “Do we pull the plug?”
Do you want somebody else to figure that out for you?
Sundae: No, it’s horrible. It’s a horrible situation to be in where you feel like you have to have a say in something. So one of the things that’s happening for me is like, “Well if I know I should do this. But it’s gonna take a long time.” There’s like this overwhelm of, I already have a lot going on, you know this especially globally, mobile people, you know that you’ve lived abroad for many, many years, there’s always a lot to do. So, give us big picture? Like how much time does it take? What does that really mean to do this work if you’re the one doing it?
Iffy: It depends. As every lawyer loves to say, “It depends on your situation.” For example, I’m in Texas. And our signings are in person. So if you know, we’re coming to X state in December and we gotta get this done while we’re Stateside. You should be contacting a lawyer, a few months before you come, getting your paperwork in order. There are some states where you can do it and sign it via Zoom or online, right? So that might not even be an issue. I will say before you even figure out how, “Oh. I can’t, I can’t.” When you have a toothache and you go to the dentist, you don’t ask them, “Now. what’s the brand of the drill you’re using and what type of filling? What’s the composition of the filling? It’s like a ceramic or we talking gold.” That’s the job of the dentist. You could say, “I’m allergic to this and I don’t want that but you figure it out. That’s your job.” And that’s the same thing, you have to think. I will not micro blade my own brows. I don’t know what they use, I don’t know what the ink is. But I do know if I want that done. I go to someone who does that and someone that I can trust, because I can see whether it’s the reviews, or if they work with people that live abroad and they indicate that, or whatever it is, that is aligned with my values. Go interview people, get on consultations and talk about it. Don’t make it that thing on your to-do list that you’re like, “It’s insurmountable!”
Look, if you can pack up and live overseas and move from country to country, build a new community, start like your own, you know, whatever, while you’re there. Knowing good and well you’re going to have to do that again and your family and you can do hard things. You can do an estate plan. It’s not rocket science. I just don’t understand that.
Sundae: No, I did it. I did it on our call right now. I was like, “Yeah, shut down. There’s so much paperwork.” But you’re right. Get started. I always tell people when I work with someone, I’m like, “Can you just boss me around?” You know? If I had to do this with you, I’d be like, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll go do it.” But I need someone. I think that’s what it is. You need someone to lead the process. To say, “Bring me these documents. Go by that time. Give me that document.”
Iffy: Yes, and that’s what we do.
Sundae: Fair point, fair point. So there’s so much and this is the thing people who are listening, you’ve got to go check out Iffy’s website because it’s, I’ve never laughed and teared up by reading an estate planning website, like you —
Iffy: I love it!
Sundae: There’s just so much about you that comes through and what you believe in. I know you have a bigger vision and I also know that you’re writing a book. Tell us a little bit more about your bigger vision and your book that’s coming out.
Iffy: My bigger vision is to normalize estate planning in the United States. And it sounds so ridiculous to say that because 70% of Americans don’t have any kind of will, much less other components of an estate plan which protect themselves through their children. Their assets, a trust, we didn’t even get into trusts and all these things. And so I would love to normalize that because I see that it has not been historically available and there are reasons that you think it’s not for you. If you go back a thousand years, the old English law and you look at the beginning of the estate planning process, it was for landowning, Englishmen, right? And then you move it, we go to the United States, the sorts of people who had access were land owners and they had property passed on enslaved people, cattle. You see all the records. It’s all there. That was estate planning trusts. They put them in trusts! In the same trust companies that are still around today, inviting me for speaking engagements and stuff.
And then women in this country. We don’t have an equal rights amendment in America. Women were considered property that you pass from your father to her husband under coverture, which is still going on. And so, when you think, here I am this educated woman, you have advanced degrees. You’ve gone to a lot of schools, probably speak a couple, if not more languages, can run a business, a household, raise children. And when it comes to estate planning, you’re like, “Why don’t I know anything?” That’s why. It’s because it was never designed for you.
And so that’s the message that I want to get out, is that it is for you. I’m writing a book to this point. It should be coming out in either the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023. I’m signing with a major publisher, actually, it’s a major international publisher. And we want to normalize it so that you can pass on not only your assets but make decisions for yourself without thinking that such a powerful tool for wealth, accumulation and transfer, as well as preserving your voice, especially for women, is something you don’t ignore. It should be a norm, your children should make this something that they do. And it should be a norm in their lives, rather than, “Oh, if I do it, I’m afraid that…” Whatever. It should just be a norm for us.
Sundae: Right? And it shouldn’t be a secret. Yeah, like a taboo, and what I also feel, like I just have chills coming up my arm. Again. It’s like that idea of intergenerational wealth for families who have been excluded from wealth for centuries.
Iffy: Yes. Historically.
Sundae: Right? It is so important and anybody who is listening, who has a social justice heart. It’s enough of a reason, right?
Iffy: It’s a social justice issue.
Sundae: It is a social justice issue, right? And it’s a way to rectify some of the imbalances and no one’s going to rectify it for you. So this is a way for you to step into your power and do something for yourself and your family.
Sundae: That is why, you got me tearing up again. That is why I was tearing up when I was reading your website. And I was giggling because you’re funny. So thank you so much for doing what you’re doing. You’ve completely smashed my paradigm and I know everybody was listening on what estate planning is. I didn’t know that everybody had one. There’s so many more layers. I know you’ve been very good at being basic with us that there’s much more to know, but thank you for that contribution that you’re doing.
Iffy: Oh, you’re so welcome. I’m so glad to share it and I encourage your listeners to do something. Don’t just absorb it and put it on your list. Go book a consultation. At least do that.
Sundae: Yeah, it’s great. So that if people want to get a hold of you specifically or want to just be on some sort of list so they can find out when your book goes live. What’s the best way for them to stay in contact?
Iffy: If you’re on social media, I’m pretty active on Instagram @iffyibekweesq, and I’m sure you’ll have this all on your shownotes. And then you can go to ibekwelaw.com, which is my personal website where I will be creating a list, Sundae, I mean I’ve got your emails, I’m like, look at all these people. They’re so together, information every week. And then, I’ll also invite you. If you are in Texas or in Arkansas, you can get on my website ibekwelaw.com and book a consultation and let’s talk about what you own here and how to protect it and yourself and your family and your loved ones and pass it on the way you want to.
Sundae: It’s amazing. And I’ll make sure that when your book goes live, we will celebrate its publication. Tell everybody about it. Thank you so much for everything today. It’s been amazing. Any sort of last words of wisdom that you’d like to share with the listeners before we close today?
Iffy: Yes, estate planning is for everyone. It is a social justice issue and anytime you feel that resistance and feel like it’s just something you’re going to get to remember this. The problem with estate planning is that we all think that we will have more time and that is not always the case. So just put it to the top of your list and get it done sooner rather than later.
Sundae: Wonderful. Thank you.
So there you have it. I hope that now you’ve listened to this episode other images will come to mind next time you hear the words “estate planning”
In fact, I hope that very word comes out of your own mouth soon as you take the next steps to ensure you have your bases covered, not just for you but those that you love.
We are dealing with so much uncertainty, isn’t it refreshing that there ARE some things we can plan for?
Thank you for joining me in this 3-part series on tough questions expats love to avoid. I would LOVE if you would send in YOUR tough questions that you would like answers to. We will do our best to find resources for you and share those along with guest experts in the coming episodes. Check out the show notes for a link to share your questions.
You’ve been listening to Expat Happy Hour. This is Sundae Bean. Thank you for listening. I will leave you with the words of Alan Lakein: “Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you do something about it now.”
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