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Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Dear Readers:
As a New Year gift to YOU--the outstanding and altruistic neighbors of Sonoma County—I offer my three “top picks” of painless legally-related steps you can take to reduce the chance of being sued and to protect your assets. (My typical “Dear-Abby-Q&A-styled-column” will resume next time). Forget the resolutions to lose weight, exercise, or clean out your closets—they fade in six weeks. Act on some or hopefully all of my free tips--they will last a lifetime:

Tip #1: Don’t let strangers plan your wake.
OK...can we talk? We will die…eventually. If you do not have a will or trust, you do in fact have an “estate plan”. Strangers, not you, will decide the fate of EVERYTHING you own—the home, the bank and stock accounts, and that one-of-a-kind 1920’s chandelier that graced your Aunt’s Shangri-La. Those “strangers” are our State Legislature, as under California law, when you die without a will or trust (legally termed “intestate”) your “stuff” will likely go through probate court. Probate proceedings may take up to 1½ years. If the delay isn’t enough to bring you down a few clouds from your angelic state, think about the costs….probate costs can consume 5-10% of your estate. Even more moola will go to other fees and our Golden State (55% of your estate can go to Uncle Sam).

If your final wishes are not clearly defined in a Will and Trust, find a lawyer that specializes in estate planning. Ask a trustworthy friend or neighbor if they can recommend a reputable estate planning attorney or you can email me and I’ll reply with the contact information of local estate planning attorneys whom I trust.

Tip #2: Save a life—your teenagers, your grandparents, or an innocent driver.
If your teenager is learning to drive, consider a defensive driving class as a prerequisite to their permit or license. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) offers an outstanding classroom program called “Start Smart” for 15-19 year-olds. Check out the CHP website or contact your local CHP office. Also, take the time to enter a contract with your teenager which outlines terms such as hours of driving, geographical limits, and responsibilities of passengers. Sample contracts are available on-line. Be cautious—some sites will try to sell you a contract—freebies are available. Just remember, the contract is a written promise between you and your teen. You can and should add any terms that you and the teen agree to. Talk it out and put it on paper.

Do you know any senior drivers? Classes to sharpen and refresh driving skills are also regularly offered to seniors (and may also reduce your automobile insurance premium). As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “the secret of education is respecting the pupil”. Rephrased, love your I-pod-tooting teenager and your Uncle George—send them to driving safety class.

Tip#3: Spend a few extra bucks for certain types of insurance and save ten-fold.
Many of my potential clients come into my law office and are sure they have “full coverage” to help pay the bills from a car crash. Their belief is sometimes not the reality. Insurance is tricky—there are so many types of coverage. California law requires that only “liability insurance” be purchased. Liability coverage “kicks in” if the insured is found to be at fault, and the minimum required in California is only $15,000.

If the at-fault person has no insurance, you may have little recourse unless you have UM/UIM coverage and Med Pay on YOUR policy. An “umbrella policy” also offers additional protection. UM/UIM, Med Pay, and an umbrella policy will provide additional protection and peace of mind, at a fraction of the cost of your required liability coverage. Call your automobile insurance company or your insurance agent now to update your policy so that you are indeed “fully” protected.

Be Safe. Be Healthy. Laugh often and embrace every day of the New Year!

Got a legal question? Email Debra – This column is designed as community service to address general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Debra A. Newby is a resident of West County and has practiced law for 26 years. She maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa and emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents and fatalities, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records). Debra can be reached via email (, phone (707-526-7200), fax (526-7202) or pony express (930 Mendocino Avenue, Suite 101, Santa Rosa, 95401).

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