Varvara M. Gokea is a leading attorney in the international community of Manhattan who has represented corporations and individuals in immigration and estate planning matters for over 20 years. Gokea is the founder of VM Gokea Law and “Protect Kids 101” and has an impressive client roaster – from movie stars and movie directors, Olympic athletes and Olympic coaches, models and cancer researchers as well as royalty-like European families and our new Archbishop, Elpidophoros of America.
During the past six years Gokea focused her law practice on guiding Greek families through the intricacies of wills, trusts, asset protection, business succession, and probate because she believes family matters most.
In July 2019, Gokea will publish her new book named: “Darling America: Greek Woman’s Guide to protecting her kids, her assets, and her future before it’s too late.”
The National Herald: Your law firm has represented so many prominent immigration cases, can you tell us why your focus is on estate planning, and why do you think Greek women need to know about estate planning?
Varvara M. Gokea: Six years ago, I was at a conference in Chicago when my appendix burst, but I thought it was just food poisoning. By the time I went to the hospital back home in New York, the doctors had said it was a miracle I was still alive. The infection was terrible, and I was in bed for days on the most potent intravenous antibiotics. As I lay in the hospital, my thoughts turned to my two sons. I couldn’t argue with God’s plan, but what will happen to my kids?
My oldest was 20 years old, and my younger boy was only 16; both of them were still in school with no knowledge of how to handle money in the real world. I realized that my life insurance would be paid outright to them, this being a recipe for disaster! So, when I got out of the hospital, I started researching ways to protect my kids and their future. I bought all the courses from the New York State Bar Association on Wills, Trusts, and kids’ protection, and I became a member of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys. To us, Greeks, family comes first!
I’m always talking to my clients about the importance of planning their lives in America. As I discussed these matters with my Greek clients, I realized our Greek community avoids talking about their wishes or their inheritance. It’s like, if you don’t talk about it – it will never happen, but nobody knows what can happen tomorrow.
TNH: Before we talk about your new book, can you tell us a little about your family background? You speak fluent Greek, but you were born in Romania?
VMG: Yes, I’m 4th generation Greek born and raised outside Greece. My Yaya, Steliani Mavromatis, and my Papou, Andreas Karnoutsos, left Constantinople in 1912 and went to “the small America of Europe” as Greeks used to call Romania. My mother, Aspasia Carnoutsou, was born in Constantza and moved to Bucharest to attend university. My Yaya, who raised me, didn’t speak Romanian; thus, the first language I learned was Greek. I studied in the Greek school in Bucharest chartered by the Andartes/Communist refugees from the Greek Antdartopolemo (1945-1949). I was taught in the Greek School of Bucharest, all subject matter in the Greek language. I learned to speak Romanian at 12 years old when I started the Romanian school.
TNH: When did you arrive in the United States?
VMG: 36 years ago – I arrived in New York in June 1983 as a political refugee. They imprisoned my father for eight years due to his anti-communist beliefs. When I had a chance to escape that regime, I asked for political asylum in Greece, and the U.S. Consulate granted me safe passage and permanent residency in the United States. It was a promise I made to my Yaya when I was three years old. “Yayaka, ego tha pao stin Ameriki” and Yayaka replied making the sign of the cross: “Paidi mou apo to stoma sou kai stou Theou to afti!”.
TNH: You have lived through some rough times.
VMG: Yes, we were born behind the Iron Curtain, in a communist stronghold, but we were the luckiest kids on Earth because we had Yayaka who gave us love, courage through trusting in God, all her Greek wisdom, and made us dream of better days. Nothing can be more encouraging than growing up in a Greek household full of love and emotion. My Yayaka dreamt of going to America, and she instilled that burning desire in me from an early age.
TNH: You stated: “To us Greeks, family comes first, but Greeks avoid the conversation.” What do you mean by that?
VMG: I’ll give you an example: A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from someone who found me on the Hellenic Lawyers website. The caller was asking me what will happen to her father’s assets located in Greece. When I asked her what does the father want to do with his assets, she replied: “Well, we never asked him. How can we ask him such a question?”
My reply was: How can you not ask? Your father has two apartments, a house, and a store in Greece and he has three children in the United States. What are his wishes? It’s easy to assume your father would want the three of you to share his inheritance equally. On the other hand, maybe one of the children is better off than the other two; or maybe your father would want his assets to be divided equally among his seven grandkids, or maybe your father wants you guys never to sell his Patrico Spiti, so the grandchildren have a house in Greece to go every summer. Just start the conversation!
TNH: So what exactly do you suggest?
VMG: My motto: “Start the conversation with your kids and your family before it’s too late!”
When families avoid talking about our inevitable mortality – siblings wind up in court fighting over irrelevant material possessions, destroying the fraternal relationships developed over a lifetime. When parents make their wishes clear and put them in writing the kids have a roadmap for the difficult times when they need guidance. Estate planning could provide tax savings, privacy for the family of the deceased, protection of the kids in case of a divorce, and potential nursing home payment avoidance. Isn’t it better to pay for the grandkid’s college education instead of paying for grandpa’s nursing home?
TNH: What do you advise your clients?
VMG: The obvious. The death rate is 100% no matter how we look at it, why not talk about it and plan for when it will happen? The best time to leave an inheritance is while you are living, instead of waiting until death, because you can guide the heritage to your wife, kids, or grandkids, or your church or other charitable organizations important to you. It is liberating to accept our mortality!
TNH: Why is your book geared toward women? Shouldn’t everybody have an estate plan?
VMG: Yes, everyone should have a written plan, but women are the most affected when there is no estate plan in place. You know, women live longer than their husbands, on average 14 years longer, and when the husband dies, often the wife is left holding the bag of unknowns: Where should she begin sorting out the things only her husband knew? The business? The brokerage accounts? The real estate assets? Where is his life insurance policy?
Greek women take care of the family and the home; first raising the kids and later taking care of elderly parents; rarely are women involved in managing the family money. When there is an estate plan in place, women have a roadmap of how to proceed at the time the husband becomes unable to manage the family and business affairs.
TNH: A will is the only way out to avoid complications?
VMG: Have you heard about the Department of Unclaimed Property? Did you know that the New York State Department of Unclaimed Property has $15 billion, yes with a “B,” in property of deceased people that cannot be distributed to heirs because the state doesn’t know to whom to allocate?
Why should so many families lose their hard-earned money when one can easily avoid it? Isn’t it better to pay for the granddaughter’s wedding rather than losing it to the Department of Unclaimed Property?
TNH: What was the main factor that triggered you to write your book?
VMG: I started writing the book with only one question in mind: Why are Greeks afraid to start the conversation and plan for the future of the people they love the most?
The book encourages Greek women to identify the issues and start this meaningful conversation with their husbands, their kids, their parents, their loved ones. I want them to receive the information from someone trained in this field of law rather than from their neighbor. I want Greek women to realize the importance of a Will, of a Trust, of a Power of Attorney, of a Health Care Proxy, documents that could save time, money, and reputation of the family.
TNH: What happens to assets the family owns in Greece? Can Greek-American families do an estate plan here in the United States and protect their assets in Greece?
VMG: U.S. laws are very different from the laws in Greece. Thus, when a family develops a comprehensive estate plan in the United States, it should include a list of the assets in Greece and the wishes of the owner of the Greek property. There should be strategic planning because legal documents drafted in Greece must complement the legal documents drafted in the United States. The process might seem daunting, but with the help of an experienced law firm, it can finish in a few weeks.
We all chose to take the risk of coming to America – we risked and worked and saved for a better future for our loved ones and us. Not planning means sending our nearest and dearest down to the courthouse to have a stranger, a judge, make the decisions for us. It doesn’t make sense. We are Greeks and love our families. Why would we do such a thing?
TNH: What is the end goal of your book?
VMG: I wrote the book for Greek women to inspire them in starting the conversation with their loved ones to protect their kids, their assets, and their future before it’s too late.
TNH: Your love for Greece is very evident.
VMG: Definitely, my first trip with my sons outside the United States was to Greece, of course!