Olivia Howell has two sons, Weston 6, and Wyatt, 3. Weston participates in theater via the booster club at school. That’s enough for him and her.
“I’m a big fan of letting the kids have downtime to think and play,” says the Northport mom. “We’re not really a huge sports family, but I do anticipate them wanting to try martial arts or theater activities. However, I’m a proponent of taking it slow and not rushing around if we can, so I tend to underschedule rather than overschedule.”
She has friends who do things differently.
“I have seen many parents exhausted from driving around nonstop, all day,” she says. “It’s important to have balance. Do activities, but also remember how important it is to spend time together as a family.”
Finding the right mix of school, extracurricular activities, and free time is a challenge for many families. The book Seraphina Does EVERYTHING!by Melissa Gratiastells the story of today’s families through Seraphina, who with her various hobbies, clubs, and sports winds up overwhelmed and underprepared to succeed in her jam-packed schedule of activities.
Children’s schedules can get out of control from them taking on too much as they explore their often-changing interests, but also from parents who are pushing to prepare them to be ideal students for college, with a bio packed with activities designed to impress.
“There has to be balance: You don’t want to become victims of the schedule,” says Howell.
Here’s how to juggle without dropping the ball.
“I recommend students find out what they’re passionate about and pursue that wholeheartedly,” says Christopher Rim, CEO of Command Education, a New York City company that offers student mentoring, tutoring and other services.
“They should tier their activities from tasks they feel most strongly about and to those that are more cursory extracurriculars,” he says. “That way, when push comes to shove, a student knows where their priorities lie and can choose one commitment over another instead of spreading themselves too thin.”
Parents naturally want to do their part to help their kids get into college, but it can have the reverse effect.
“Don’t focus on making your child seem well rounded,” warns Rim. “That’s how kids end up with rehearsals, practices, and tutoring sessions back to back seven days a week.”
If you want to tweak their schedule, add things that relieve stress.
“Give them a journal to process their thoughts, plan weekly family game nights — not every minute of their day has to be spent résumé building,” says Rim. “As much as your child is preparing to become a college student, they’re preparing to be a person in the world. They should learn strategies to manage stress and how to have fun.”
GIVE TIME FOR TRIALS
It’s hard to know how a new activity will change things. Allowing a trial period for ongoing evaluation is helpful. Set a time period, say six weeks, to evaluate and discuss how your child is feeling.
“Stay flexible, nothing is written in stone,” says Dana Dorfman, a psychotherapist in New York City.
Children exhibit overload in various ways, depending upon their developmental stage and personalities, says Dorfman.
“Some children can express their feelings,” she says. “Others experience physical complaints such as stomachaches and headaches, or resist the activity entirely.”
Take note if your child has significant changes in eating or sleeping, or difficulty concentrating.
Says Dorfman, “They may be overwhelmed, particularly if these things persist for two weeks or more.”
SET THE PACE
Don’t live an overbooked life yourself. The kids are watching.
“Show kids through your actions that life balance is important,” says Gratias. “Our children look to us for guidance. Teach them to say no to opportunities and activities that could lead to an unbalanced life. View each change in season as an opportunity to re-evaluate family commitments.”
Sometimes, after a wicked storm, a rainbow appears. Stacy Miranda knows that firsthand. Six years ago she was battling invasive ductal carcinoma, triple positive breast cancer, an aggressive, fast-growing form of the disease. Today, she’s living her best life.
Miranda was 34 when she discovered a lump on her breast and brought it to the attention of her doctor. That was the beginning of a journey that included radiation, chemotherapy, Herceptin infusions, and three surgeries.
“Chemo hit me really hard, to the point that I was barely leaving the house and was dependent on others for even the simplest of daily tasks,” says Miranda, 40, who lives in Long Beach.
Her life was upside down. By the time she recovered from a second surgery, more than a year had passed and she was able to return to work, says the teacher at North Shore Middle School in Glen Head. Six months later, she was out of work again for a revision surgery. But, with gratitude, she says, “This past June, I celebrated my five-year cancer-free mark, which I call my ‘rebirth.’”
The metamorphosis was painful.
“At times, I have felt isolated and stripped of my youth, femininity, self-worth, and innocence of good health,” she says. “Just as with most cancer patients, I have had my share of dark days. I was a single woman without children.”
Overall, she remained positive and grateful.
“Cancer has been one of my greatest teachers in life,” she adds. “While it doesn’t define me, it has certainly played a major role in molding me into the woman I am. I feel very lucky to be where I am today.”
While being out of work did eventually make finances tight, she was fortunate to have support from friends and family, as well as extremely good health insurance. Miranda turned to organizations that help breast cancer patients.
What sustained her during the most difficult period of her life?
“I tried everything I possibly could,” she recalls. ”You name it, I probably tried it. Every stage of the journey required different coping mechanisms and means of support. I think a healthy mindset is always key, though.
“It basically came down to gratitude and acceptance,” she continues. “That helped me stay positive and keep the faith that it was a temporary hardship that would lead to good things later on.”
When she was overwhelmed, she went into therapy and leaned on her support network. Physical therapy was also helpful both mentally and physically.
“I went to the only breast cancer physical therapy program on Long Island, Full Circle Physical Therapy,” she says.
To be sure, after the storm there is a rainbow. Although she has some residual side effects from treatment from her current medication, she’s now in very good health. Now, she says, “I am unapologetically myself, living from my heart, and committed to living life to the fullest.”
Living as a cancer survivor presents challenges, but it can create opportunities. Miranda is involved in two nonprofit organizations: First Descents, a group providing adventure trips for young adults impacted by cancer, and Climb For Hope, an organization that raises money for breast cancer and multiple sclerosis research through adventure challenges.
Through all her adventures, such as whitewater kayaking, rock climbing, hiking and mountaineering, she has a new sense of empowerment. She has also shared her cancer story through public speaking engagements.
“If simply by sharing my experiences I can help others, I am honored to do so,” she says. “Giving back while also challenging myself has been so very purposeful and healing.”
Miranda says her first fundraising adventure challenge was climbing the summit of Mount Adams in Washington.
“When I reached that summit, I cried out in astonishment that my mind and body could achieve such a feat,” she recalls. “From climbing the mountains of breast cancer to the mountains of the Earth. I went from barely being able to walk down the block to climbing the second highest peak in the Pacific Northwest!”
It’s never too early to start preparing for worst-case scenarios.
Since 2016, some 30,000 preschoolers through second graders have participated in the BeReadyLI Children’s Workshop, which teaches kids how to prepare for emergencies. Through funding provided by the PSEG Foundation, United Way of Long Island, PSEG Long Island and 2-1-1 Long Island joined forces to create the program and BeReadyLI website.
“PSEG Long Island wants to be sure that the younger people in the community know how to handle emergency situations that could affect Long Island and giving them something to do helps keep them calm,” says Jackie D’Anneo, a BeReadyLI educator who recently ran a workshop in Glen Cove. “We use fun tools like Sesame Street to teach the kids how to identify people around them who can help them and just teach the kids important tools they can use in these situations.”
The interactive 30-minute presentation is given primarily at schools and places like the YMCA.
“We partnered with Sesame Street because we know how important it is to deliver information to children in a way they can relate to, with characters they know,” says George Coburn, PSEG Long Island Manager-Community Outreach.
No doubt it’s much less scary to hear Elmo, Big Bird, and the gang talk about information that could otherwise be overwhelming to children.
“Children learn what an emergency is, to recognize the sounds that are associated with an emergency like beeping, and who to turn to depending on the circumstance — a teacher if they are at school, or firefighter, police officer or neighbor — as well as what to do,” explains Elizabeth Eberhardt, Assistant Vice President of Community Impact for United Way of Long Island.
It can be surprising what children don’t know.
“During Sandy, we saw firsthand that some kids only knew their parents as mom and dad,” says Coburn.
During the workshop, the importance of the children knowing their full names as well as their parents’ and home address is among the information emphasized. They learn what to do before, during and after an emergency.
“Every family is encouraged to have a family plan,” says Eberhardt. “To know where they will meet if they are not together when an incident occurs. We also ask that families prepare a go-pack and we tell them essential items to include, like water, blankets, first aid kit, and flashlight, among others.”
Children take home an orange backpack called a go-pack, safety and preparedness tips, a yellow children’s hard hat, and certificate of completion of the workshop. Educators hope that when the children walk through the door with their goods it sparks a family discussion about safety.
“Generally, people aren’t well prepared for an emergency,” says Coburn. “They don’t think they will be impacted directly. We hope those backpacks are a reminder to parents that they need to have a plan.”
An emergency can be any number of things, not just floods, hurricanes, or blizzards, but also microbursts of wind or heat.
“Be sure you’re adequately covered by insurance,” says Eberhardt. “Listen to reports. Get your go-packs ready. Be proactive.”
In addition to BeReadyLI.org, another good resource of information is United Way’s 2-1-1 Long Island website 211li.org that has links to severe weather and other essential information.
“[The 2-1-1 Long Island] website is comprehensive, and we ramp it up with additional information during and after an emergency,” says Eberhardt. “You can find out what nonprofits are doing to help and other important things to know.”
PSEG Long Island also offers other programs through employee volunteers to first through sixth graders about energy efficiency, renewable technologies, and electric safety — like what to do when a power wire is down, and more. These programs reach more than 100,000 kids each year, says PSEG-LI’s Coburn. It’s better to be prepared and not need than to need and not have.
Says Eberhardt, “While you cross your fingers and hope you don’t have an emergency, you have to prepare for the possibility.”
As another school year begins, no doubt you’re happier about it than your children.
You’re relieved. They’ll be positively engaged getting their education. But don’t get too relaxed, for there may be work in store for you. Sometimes, what goes on in those hallways requires your attention. For a variety of reasons, parents may find themselves advocating for their children. That’s a test you can’t afford to fail. Your child’s education is at stake.
Here’s how to be an effective advocate for your child.
Attend parent involvement or volunteer to chaperone or assist occasionally. This helps the school become familiar with you, which is important should you or your child need something.
“If your child is making poor grades, has a learning or physical disability, mental health diagnosis, has defiance or outburst, or shows aggression for others, ask for more information about IEP (Individualized Education Program) or 504 plans in order to make a plan with the school for any needed accommodations such as class size, extra time on tests, or having an aide,” says Ashton Burdick, a nationally certified counselor providing multi-systemic therapy (MST) for children and teens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“Go with your gut,” says Lisa Lightner, whose Philadelphia-based consulting business, A Day in Our Shoes, offers resources and information for parents of children with disabilities.
Most children have good and bad days at school. They grumble about an assignment or a teacher or a friend that has upset him/her. The next day or week, everything is fine.
“But when a child constantly complains, or when his report card shows failing or falling grades or indicates behavior issues, investigate,” says Nancy Brigham, education researcher and author of A Fragile Enterprise: Yesterday’s Schools and Tomorrow’s Students.
Problems typically fall into three categories: instructional issues, social emotional issues, and bullying.
Determine what’s wrong. “Children aren’t always the best reporters. ‘My teacher hates me,’ may mean that the child is having trouble doing the work, that the teacher seems to ignore him, or that s/he has behavior issues that cause him to act out in class,” says Bringham.
ASK FOR HELP
If the issue is instructional, start with the teacher. If your child acts out with only one teacher, meet with them. If it is more generalized, try to meet with your child’s cluster of teachers, or speak to a guidance counselor or social worker, suggests Brigham.
If your child has been sent to the office, make an appointment with that administrator.
For bullying, round up every adult involved in his/her education, individually or as a group. See them ASAP.
Follow up via email to document that you’ve been trying to solve the problem.
Get a counselor for your child. They may identify a diagnosis that assists with qualifying your child for an IEP, and they may be able to work in the school with your child.
ASK PROPER QUESTIONS
Don’t be confrontational. You want discussion, not a defensive teacher.
Ask,“What do you see as Johnny’s academic strengths?” This approach focuses the conversation on your child in a positive way.
Find common ground. You both want Jenny to do her homework. If the work is too challenging, ask,“What can I do at home to help?” says Brigham.
Leave with a plan for ongoing communication. This keeps the door open to discuss further steps.
Social and emotional issues are painful for children and parents and are a challenge for schools. The problem often stems from a child’s feelings of alienation.
“As a parent, help your child find a way to connect and urge the school to become an inclusive community,” says Brigham.
Inquire about how the teacher establishes a sense of community. Then ask, “Why do you think Johnny feels left out? What can we do about that?”
“Don’t report your child’s teacher to the dean or principal. Give them the courtesy of communicating first,” says Fran Walfish, Ph.D., family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent.
Keep cool. Warns Burdick, “It might feel good to yell at that teacher who seems to be singling your kid out, but the principal and faculty may take you less seriously.”
When Katie Schumacher heard her children’s middle school principal explain the many problems that social media was bringing into the school, the former teacher took it as a call to action.
Following the orientation in 2013 at South Side Middle School in Rockville Centre where her then-11-year-old twins attended, she asked the school’s administrators if she could present to the students a list of rules in the hopes of lessening the incidents in the school. That was the start of the Don’t Press Send Pledge, a list of social media guidelines for children.
“As a parent and educator, I was disheartened,” she recalls. “Social media created an unsafe environment and unkindness. Rules were needed.”
She presented her ideas to other schools and organizations locally. And thus, in 2013, Don’t Press Send was born. The mission of the DPS campaign then and now is to provide guidelines and strategies for kind and careful online communication — in other words, creating cyber civics.
“With social media as their main means of communication, children’s social and emotional development is at risk,” she says. “Building strong self-esteem is nearly impossible when one compares their life day in and day out to others because of the transparency of social media. It creates an unhealthy attachment to the validation of their peers.
“In addition, the level of cruelness tends to be higher due to many factors, including the lack of empathy that is caused by the screen itself,” she continues. “Without body language to guide our words, our children are less thoughtful or careful with the words they put out for all to see.”
Schumacher couldn’t sit by silently stewing.
“We can’t turn a blind eye to what is happening to our children growing up in the world of social media,” she says. “The statistics are alarming, with a 200 percent increase in suicide between the ages of 10 and 14. This is our generation’s battle.”
Word spread about Schumacher’s work and she began speaking in other communities around Long Island. Over the last few years, she has spoken to students from elementary schools to colleges, as well as doing parent workshops and professional staff development. She believes the TED Talk she gave in 2017 at Adelphi University led to engagements in places such as New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Texas.
In 2016, she published Don’t Press Send: A Mindful Approach to Social Media, An Education in Cyber Civics, which is available on Amazon. Her work also expanded to include Project Feel Good, which teaches students coping skills including breathing exercises and meditation as well as the practice of setting intentions, focusing on gratitude, and creating a support team. Journaling is encouraged. Three years ago, the Don’t Press Send Pledge was released in app form.
“It is the first thing parents should download on any new forum,” she says. “It has been downloaded in 28 countries.”
What does she hope all her efforts will yield? That students will feel safe on social media and be mindful that screens can create an emotional disconnect.
“I tell students at each presentation that they should ask themselves, ‘How would this make me feel if I received it?’” she says. “I then tell them to put their hand on their stomach and listen to their gut/intuition that is also getting weakened by the screen. I tell them, if it feels wrong, it is wrong. Your moral compass is telling you something, listen to it.”
Decades ago, young people had few real worries. The biggest issues were getting a driver’s license, passing the next exam, going to a party on the weekend, or finding someone to take them to the mall.
The age of innocence is long gone. Today, the story is decidedly different. The statistics are sobering. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 19.
“More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined,” says Jeffrey Friedman, CEO of Central Nassau (CN) Guidance & Counseling Services, a Hicksville-based nonprofit specializing in substance use disorder treatment and mental health. “Every day in America, there is an average of more than 5,400 suicide attempts by those in grades 7 through 12.”
The organization’s Project Forward offers students counseling treatments to work through topics like romantic relationships, social media, and cyberbullying among others.
“There has been a huge increase of kids in high school dealing with serious depression and anxiety,” says Gordon Gooding, a school social worker with experience with elementary and high school students in Baldwin who also runs a private practice in Cold Spring Harbor. “The amount of anxiety and depression coming through the doors has been staggering. It seems like it is a majority of what we do now.”
He says suicide among young people on Long Island continues to climb and spread. Depression doesn’t discriminate.
“I work in two very different communities,” he says. “They differ in economic status, ethnicity and school systems. Yet both communities lost young people to suicide this year alone. Some of them were still in high school, while others were recent high school graduates.”
WHAT’S GOING ON?
The questions are endless.
Why are young people with so much life ahead of them giving up? The reasons are varied and complex. Lynn Hugger, a clinical psychologist in Manhasset, unloads a list of burdens.
“Developmentally, adolescents don’t have a larger context with which to understand their current stressors — so many things feel more intense and ‘all or nothing’ than they might for an adult,” she says. ”In addition, younger people have a greater tendency towards impulsivity.”
Hugger says some of her patients have pointed out that threats of terrorist attacks and mass shootings increase fear, anxiety, and hopelessness. Social media ups the peer pressure.
“Teenagers know pretty easily what their peers are doing and what they are left out of; retaliatory commentary is also easy to do; regrettable actions on social media and texting are common and more public,” she says. “Because of social media, suicide is more public, and the option is more widely known about and therefore considered.”
Then there’s the stress of performing well in school and getting into college.
“The pressure can be enormous,” Hugger adds. “Many students don’t understand how many options there really are. They get burned out or are afraid that they won’t get into a particular college and therefore all their options in life are over, creating a distorted sense of doom.”
Bullying online and off can push some over the edge. In 2017, Angie Collazo said her 17-year-old son Angelo, then a student at Hicksville High School, who suffered from scoliosis, killed himself because of lifelong, vicious bullying.
What’s happening with youth has many people working overtime. Last July, New York State began requiring schools to administrate educational classes that provide a range of resources and skills to help students recognize, cope with and understand potential mental health concerns.
“Schools do amazing work on Long Island,” says Gooding. “Lately there has been a big push in schools to teach mindfulness and provide students with other tools for coping. Schools are beginning to talk about drug prevention, having wellness weeks, and bringing a greater awareness to mental health. For example, recently Northport High School did a wellness week where they talked about mental health and taught mindfulness and yoga practices.”
The issues are multilayered. Getting teens to talk is no small matter. They can be hesitant to see a counselor because of what someone may think.
“Sometimes parents have a difficult time understanding what normal teen behavior is, and what is problematic,” he says. “They didn’t grow up with social media, so they may not understand the stress young people are under.”
School social workers have their hands full.
“As a school social worker for over 20 years, I can tell you we have been inundated for a long time,” he adds. “Often, we can only give attention to the most acute issues and miss opportunities to address less glaring ones [that may grow in time]. Some students never get the support they need, due to resistance in the family, denial, or lack or resources.”
Soledad O’Brien has always been curious and adventurous, whether exploring the woods in Long Island where she grew up in St. James, horseback riding, serving as a lifeguard, or doing scientific research on local marshes. That spirit still defines her today.
Currently she is CEO of Starfish Media Group, a multiplatform media production company that was founded to tell empowering and authentic stories on a variety of social issues. She anchors and produces the Hearst Television political magazine program Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien. She also reports regularly for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and PBS NewsHour.
Earlier in her career, O’Brien co-anchored on Weekend Today, and contributed segments to the Today show and NBC Nightly News. It was in 2003 that she joined CNN and became one of America’s favorite journalists, beloved for her straight shooting and warm, folksy style. O’Brien anchored two CNN morning news programs and their documentary unit, and created the In America documentary series, Black in America and Latino in America.
She is a three-time Emmy award winner. Her coverage of Hurricane Katrina for CNN earned her and the network a George Foster Peabody Award. She also won the Peabody for her coverage of the BP Gulf Coast Oil Spill, and her reporting on the Southeast Asia tsunami garnered CNN an Alfred I. DuPont Award. O’Brien authored two books, her critically acclaimed memoir The Next Big Story and Latino in America.
Nearly a decade ago, O’Brien and her husband Brad Raymond created the PowHERful Foundation, which helps young women get in and through college. No doubt she is a role model for women and particularly minority women who aspire to a career in broadcast journalism. Not only is she good at what she does, she is compassionate, smart, and real. Her million-dollar smile makes anyone’s day.
O’Brien chatted with the Long Island Press about her career, her family, thoughts on the state of media today and more.
How did growing up on Long Island impact you? I learned to be self-sufficient. I swam at the beach. I liked horseback riding, so I babysat to help pay for riding lessons. Some of the people I babysat for were prominent members of the community; they had incredible history. Living on Long Island, I had the opportunity to meet amazing people who were well traveled. I learned from them. I have fond memories of swimming in Long Beach. We spent time playing in the woods on our own. There was no need to worry about us. It was a different time.
You haven’t forgotten your Long Island roots. What inspired you to donate to Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism? My dad was one of the founding professors of Stony Brook. I grew up on campus. Our family went to church at St. Phillips in St. James, but we also went to church on campus.
When did you know you wanted to pursue journalism? I was a premed student studying chemistry along with my sister. She told me that just memorizing information wasn’t meaningful. She told me to go with my passion. I didn’t love what I was doing. So I pursued journalism. I fetched coffee and mail at a television station. I was 20 years old. I knew I could get good at it.
What was it like in the beginning in such a competitive field? I didn’t think of it as being competitive. I focused on getting my foot in the door at a television station in Boston. It was fun and exciting. I ran around all day. I believed if you worked hard you could do well. I liked being an apprentice. I was able to figure it out. I asked questions. I knew I was learnable. I was fortunate to work around smart people. I learned from them. I watched them, I read their scripts. And when I realized things were competitive, my strategy was to work smarter. I always asked myself, how do I think about telling a story? Why should someone hire me? It’s not always about the fact that you went to Harvard, but that you have something thoughtful to say.
What were some of your strategies for succeeding in this business? I try to say “yes” to every opportunity. I try to get more experience. I jumped on opportunities to cover Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, to do docuseries. I always asked myself: “Is it an interesting story? What’s my point of view?” I don’t back away from a challenge. I did a story on ice fishing. My husband reminded me that I hate to be cold, but it was amazing, interesting. I grew up in the burbs, in a rural area, I played in the woods with my friends.
You’ve had an amazing career. What are some highlights? Covering disasters, national news. I thought the most compelling stories were about regular people who had great stories. I want to elevate people dealing with real issues, like the people who experienced Hurricane Katrina, or documentaries on veterans, and their thoughts on suicide. A lot of reporters think the highlights on their resume are the famous people they interviewed; not me.
What are your thoughts on the status of the media today, especially the whole “fake news” furor? I don’t like the term “fake news.” I am frequently disappointed in journalists, and how they cover politics. Many could do a better job. Journalists have to stop being surprised. I am disappointed how politics are being covered like a horse race without context. On the political show that we do, we put people and politics in context. For example, on the border issue, we want to hear what people there say. We don’t just want talking heads shouting at each other.
Are there any days where you thought you might just walk away from journalism? I love my career. Sometimes, I don’t like the people in it. Sometimes, I want to punch someone in the nose. I hate shady reporting, clickbait to get an audience. But I understand why it’s done, but it still pisses me off.
Who or what helped you most in your career? So many people helped me. I have also been a good student, a good mentee. I listened. I do what I’m told when you invest in me. There are at least 10 to 15 people who were incredible. There have also been people who are role models for what not to do. I found good mentors.
You started Starfish Media in 2013. What’s it been like to be able to control the narrative? It’s been really fun. It took a while to structure the company. What’s been great is to be able to work with people you want to work with. I get to choose the people and create the environment. I choose the projects. But there are challenges, like having to have a long-term strategy, to decide who to partner with.
What’s the next level for Starfish? Where do you see the company five years out and beyond? I want us to constantly find great stories to tell over a variety of platforms, to do branded content, to work with companies to tell authentic stories, to do docuseries, to unwind complicated stories.
You are a wife and mother of four teenagers. How do you juggle work-life balance? My mother used to say everyone gets the same 24 hours. You decide how to use your time. When my children were little, we just did it differently than other people. We might have been unconventional, but everyone was valued. It was important that everyone achieved their dreams. It was a challenge with the twins when they were young. Cute as they were, it was a nightmare.
How is life with teenagers? They lecture me about their beliefs. But teens are easier, they are articulate, while also more argumentative. I feel much more engaged with them than when they were little. It’s better, it’s more fun now than when they were six.
When you think about your personal and professional legacy, what’s important to you? I don’t think about legacy. But I do hear that some people got into journalism because of the stories I did. I hope my kids think I left them a thoughtful conversation. But, I don’t care what people say. I’ll be looking down from heaven anyway.
It’s a privilege to serve as executor of an estate. For sure, it’s no small matter to carry out someone’s final wishes. The responsibility is huge. The last thing you want is to do anything less than a stellar job.
Here’s how to honor your loved one’s legacy.
RECOGNIZE YOUR ROLE
The executor of an estate must understand that he/she is a fiduciary.
“This means that they have a duty to act in good faith and trust for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the estate,” says Gary Sastow, partner at the law firm of Brown, Gaujean, Kraus & Sastow, in White Plains. “The executor must also understand that they are now stepping into the shoes of the deceased person to carry out their wishes with respect to the deceased person’s assets that make up the estate.”
Know what to expect.
“It is a challenging and sometimes thankless job,” says Jeffrey Greener, an attorney specializing in estate planning with Rivkin Radler LLP in Uniondale.
GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY
Come with your A-game. There will be plenty to do and no room for mistakes.
“The main responsibility of an estate executor is to take charge,” says Mark Snyder, a financial advisor in Medford. “Families are often in disarray at this stressful time and conflicts may be emerging. It is imperative to get a hold of the will and see that the deceased’s wishes are honored above all else.”
Your duties can include things like hiring an experienced estate attorney to assist in performing executorial duties and obtaining a formal court appointment; identifying, gathering and collecting assets; identifying debts of the decedent; and communicating with heirs, among other tasks, points out attorney Candice Grossbach with the law firm of Martin Grossbach in Rye Brook.
In addition, the executor will go through the process of probating the estate before the Surrogate’s Court, marshaling the assets of the estate, distributing the assets in accordance with the deceased person’s last will and testament, accounting for all the assets, investing the estate’s money, if applicable, and filing the necessary tax returns and reports to the Surrogate’s Court.
The duties of an executor or administrator may be time-consuming and complicated.
“Before accepting the position, first determine if you have the time to handle a process that could take upwards of a year for more complex estates,” says Greener. “While no specific educational training or skills are required, it does help to be well organized. It also helps to have the right temperament, since the estate administration process can be long and sometimes frustrating, especially when there are numerous individuals involved, each with his or her own expectations.”
If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. Know that the estate will pay you for your services. Keep a record of the hours you spend.
Don’t go solo. Build a team to ensure you do the best job possible. You’ll likely need an estate attorney, an accountant, financial advisor and, depending on the estate, an appraiser.
Make no assumptions that everyone is on the same page and that the process will be without some confrontation or risk free.
“Executors are often the only thing standing between heirs and their inheritance, so executors often feel heirs have put them under a microscope,” says Greener. “You can also be held personally responsible for losses or for failing to timely pay taxes or claims before distributing any inheritances.”
Be mindful about everything.
“Don’t distribute too much too soon and leave the estate financially depleted,” says Gary Garland, a certified elder law attorney with the Garland Law Office in New York City. “For example, distributing all the cash and stocks, and then there are no liquid funds available to fix up the house for sale.”
You also don’t want to distribute assets without appropriate paperwork.
“If you give $50,000 to the nephew without appropriate paperwork, he can still sue the estate if he feels aggrieved,” Garland adds.
Serving as an executor won’t be easy, but what a way to show your love.
You’ve likely heard the sobering statistic: About 70 percent of people 65 and older will need long-term care.
The price tag is just as frightening. Typical monthly costs on Long Island for an assisted living facility are $4,000; a semi-private room with nursing home care, $13,535; and for a private room with nursing care, $14,220, according to Genworth’s 2017 Cost of Care Survey.
So how do you pay for care? A long-term care insurance policy is one strategy. This provides income if you become dependent on someone else’s care or require assistance for basic living tasks and needs due to a chronic or prolonged illness, degenerative disease, or other condition that necessitates care at home or in an assisted living or long-term care facility.
Policies don’t come cheap, especially if you wait until your 50s or older to buy one. They can run a few thousand dollars a year.
“I continue to hear that long-term care insurance is expensive, but compared to what?” says Brett Anderson, president of St. Croix Advisors in Hudson, Wisconsin. “If you need ongoing care, you could easily spend $8,000, $10,000, $15,000 a month. I don’t see LTC insurance as expense, I see it as pre-paying in the event you need extended care, and you want to protect your loved ones and your assets by transferring some or all the risk to an insurance company.”
The reality is, rising premiums are too expensive for middle-income Americans, says Lingke Wang, co-founder of Ovid Life in San Francisco. For many, self-insuring is their best solution.
What does that mean? You save enough to cover your own long-term care expenses. There are advantages.
“You have more choices,” says Matthew Rappaport, counsel with the law firm of Sahn Ward Coschignano in Uniondale. “You can go to a high-level facility or choose to pay a family member to administer care in any setting. Government-funded long-term care typically is more restrictive. I wouldn’t want to be left with only the choices Medicaid provides me.”
Secondarily, going through the insurance process spurs people to address related needs such as estate planning, financial planning, and retirement spending projections, he says.
One way to self-insure is with whole life insurance that builds usable cash values and has a long-term care rider.
“It’s often less expensive and a much richer and all-encompassing way to get the benefits of long-term care, along with a death benefit and the potential to build cash,” says Michele Lee Fine, financial representative with Guardian Life Insurance in Jericho.
STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS
“Self-insuring is typically not done with accuracy or with any real ability to solve the equation,” says Lou Cannataro, partner, Cannataro Park Avenue Financial in Manhattan. “Quite often, it just seems to be the better alternative than spending significant dollars insuring against something that may not occur. Most do not realize the amount of money that can be lost to a long-term care need.”
His plan: “Build out your planning retirement model factoring in all of your goals and monetary needs through your life span,” he says.
If there is a shortage you cannot afford to self-insure. If your planning shows you can retire and not run out of money, you’re in good shape.
“Layer into this planning a long-term care need,” he adds. “If your goals are still accomplished even with the cash flow out for care, you can self-insure.”
WHAT’S A GOOD RULE OF THUMB?
“If you have at least $250,000 in current dollars to be inflated each year by 5 percent to spend on each occurrence of care in the future, plus all your other retirement assets to accomplish your goals, you can likely self-insure,” says Cannataro.
Have a written game plan for reducing debt. Free up income to invest in retirement and self-insure. Put in place an emergency fund of at least three to six months, a year if you’re older.
“Don’t put all your money in a retirement fund which is not accessible before you’re 59 1/2 and have no emergency fund,” says Kalen Omo, owner of Kalen Omo Financial Coaching in Tucson. “This could come back to haunt you if an unexpected event forces you to dip into retirement sooner than you would like to.”
Inheriting art can feel like hitting the lottery. You have something of value you didn’t expect or work hard for. Depending on the piece, your net worth can jump significantly. It’s enough to get you excited for sure.
Settle down. No doubt, this is a good thing, a very good thing. But, know that while your treasure may have been “free,” that’s not to say there are no costs.
Here’s what you need to know about inheriting art.
FIND THE VALUE
“It is possible that the Picasso is a copy with no value at all,” says Jeffrey Greener, a trusts and estates partner at the law firm of Rivkin Radler in Uniondale. “There are many appraisers out there and each have different specialties, so doing due diligence is warranted.”
He recommends choosing an appraiser who is affiliated with at least one of the three major appraisal organizations: The Appraisers Association of America, the American Society of Appraisers or the International Society of Appraisers.
PROTECT YOUR ASSET
Once you know how much your gift is worth, look for insurance. Proof of purchase, invoice, and/or an appraisal are needed to find the insurable value, according to Rosemary Whisler, an insurance adviser with Cook Maran’s private client unit in Melville.
“Depending on the appraised value, it may be possible to include the piece under your homeowners’ insurance,” says Jeremy Larner, president of JKL Worldwide, a fine arts consultancy in New York City. “Alternately, you may want to insure your art under a special policy that covers a higher amount and takes into consideration things like breakage and movement of art.”
Also consider Art Title Protection Insurance, which protects against disputes that are related to ownership.
Considerations include determining how much coverage to buy (for example, the full value or some lesser amount), whether that coverage will be a fixed or “agreed value,” or whether you will be reimbursed at whatever current market value is at the time of the loss. Greener explains that an agreed value policy works well if the market value has fallen but not if it has increased.
Also, using an agreed value policy may also require you to have your artwork appraised from time to time to ensure that you remain fully covered. But be reasonable.
“Don’t overinsure for crazy values,” cautions Jonathan Greenstein, owner and operator of J Greenstein & Co., a Cedarhurst company specializing in Jewish art and antiques. “That will only add to your costs.”
Where should you turn for help?
“Always consult a reputable insurance broker with experience in the arena of fine art and one that has garnered relationships with the high-net-worth carriers, such as Chubb, AIG, and PURE,” says Whisler.
UNDERSTAND THE TAX IMPLICATIONS
Another reason you need an appraisal is for taxes. You need to establish the fair market value of the art as of the owner’s date of death because you, the heir, will receive a “stepped-up basis” in it.
“Essentially that means the built-in gain in the piece is wiped out and it’s as if you, the heir, purchased the art for the then-current value,” says estate planning attorney Nathan Jones of Nathan Jones Law in Missouri. “Later, if you sell the artwork, you can pay significantly less tax on any gain in value.”
Art that is appraised in excess of $50,000 could be subject to a review by the IRS Art Advisory Panel, points out Larner.
Keep a file on works of art, especially those inherited. Are there receipts, gallery correspondence, or any family history related to that work of art?
“It is excellent practice to keep this information in a file, or directly attached to the back of the work,” says Graydon Sikes, director of artwork at Everything But The House, (ebth.com), an online estate sale marketplace. “This ‘provenance,’ or ownership history, is often critical to the value of a work. A collector always wishes to know any background information about an object.”
Proper storage and maintenance is a must. You want to preserve your loved one’s legacy and at some point, pay it forward.