Don’t Drop the Ball

A New Year’s Eve Ball has dropped in Times Square every year since 1907 to mark the new year with only two exceptions. Only the World War II “dimout” of lights in New York City interrupted the tradition in 1942 and 1943, out of fear of German bombers.

The first ball was made of iron and wood and included one hundred 25-watt light bulbs. It weighed 700 pounds and was a mere five feet in diameter. Currently in use, since the 100-year anniversary of the ball drop, is a new, more impressive ball. This one is twelve feet in diameter and weighs 11,875 pounds. It is covered in 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles bolted to 672 LED modules illuminated by 32,256 LEDs. We’ve come a long way.

One might wonder why we drop a ball on New Year’s Eve to signal the new year, but the idea actually dates back long before the Times Square tradition. As early as 1833, a “time-ball” was installed at England’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich, but unlike the New Year’s Eve Ball, this ball was dropped every day at one o’clock to help the captains of nearby ships set their chronometers. Through the years, as many as 150 similar “time-balls” were installed around the world to serve that purpose, and the tradition continues to this day at the United States Observatory in D.C.

Considering the fact that the New Year’s Eve Ball tradition offers observers a chance to reset and refocus as the calendar turns to a new year, and that the inspiration for the ball drop honors a usage that allowed ship captains to reset their equipment on a daily basis, it is ironic that we use the term “drop the ball” in a far more negative way. The online version of the Cambridge Dictionary defines that common term to mean “to make a mistake, especially by not taking action with something that should have been planned for.”

Ben Franklin once wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Ben Franklin was eighty-three when he penned those words, and he lived in a time when men lived on average only thirty-six years, so he had already beaten the odds by a long shot. It was also Ben Franklin who said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” It’s not much of a stretch to blend these two well-known Franklin sayings together, update them to today’s language, and advise people, “plan for the day you’re no longer around so you don’t drop the ball.”

In my line of work, every week I meet families dealing with situations where the ball was dropped. Sometimes those cases involve unexpected and untimely deaths where families have to scramble to make the best of terrible situations they didn’t see coming. But often those cases involve situations everyone saw coming but did nothing to prepare.

What could go wrong when someone fails to prepare for death (one of two certainties in life identified by Franklin)? For one, the estate could wind up in probate court. My firm handles probate matters for families who are unable to avoid it, but we hate to see those cases because probate is so easy to avoid with a little planning. Probate is a full-blown court process like bankruptcy or divorce that is very expensive, surprisingly lengthy, and quite public. No one would wish probate on their surviving family members if they really knew what it involved. But many people fail to take even the most basic steps to avoid it.

One way to avoid probate is to consider putting death beneficiaries on financial accounts. Death beneficiaries can help with regular bank accounts, investment accounts, IRAs, and life insurance. But sometimes, basic death beneficiary designations aren’t enough. Those cases could involve specific assets that require special planning, like real estate and mineral interests. Those cases could involve specific family situations that require special planning, like minor children, disabled heirs, creditor problems, or family issues. Those are the cases where estate planning attorneys, like me, can step in to ensure you don’t “drop the ball.”