Can you tell us why you chose estate planning
as a career?
Facing one’s mortality is like staring into the sun — we don’t want to do either for very long. There is no cure for mortality, but we can do the next best thing by providing peace of mind in a stressful time. Estate planning provides that peace of mind to those with the foresight to create this important document. They know they can rest in peace when they die, because their loved ones are going to be provided for and their path into their future will be smoother. It’s just one less thing to worry about in this confusing world.
What is an estate planner’s mission?
The mission of an estate planner is to clearly document the intentions of the creator of the plan in anticipation of a time when they can no longer speak for themselves. The primary goal is to reduce or avoid conflicts, confusion and cost.
How is estate planning accomplished?
I do not view estate planning as simply making a bunch of legal documents, crossing our fingers and hoping that everything works out, and then sending clients on their way. I view estate planning as process-oriented, client-centered and value-driven, as opposed to procedure-oriented, document-centered and worth-driven.
There is great risk in not engaging in this process. Statistics reveal that about 35 percent of us ever do estate planning and 70 percent of those who do, result in plan failure. Failure means the plan did not go as intended. Of the 70 percent, 3 percent failed because of probate and paying too much tax. The inappropriate receipt of assets makes up the remaining 97 percent of failures. Examples of this type of failure would be minor beneficiaries indicated as recipients, causing court custodianship, or worse, monies ending up with an ex-spouse of a deceased child who share these minor children; spendthrift children receiving and misspending their inheritance in a matter of months; or disabled beneficiaries receiving and losing governmental benefits. Other examples of failure include beneficiaries who fought over the family home, losing their inheritance to lawyers; or beneficiaries losing their inheritance to creditors, predators and ex-spouses.
Can you discuss the estate planning process?
The first step for an estate planning attorney is to find out as much as possible about the person seeking to create an estate plan. The person should complete a questionnaire and state what he or she owns, and how much the assets are worth. The questionnaire should also include answers about family members. The questionnaire should address not just quantitative issues, but quality-of-life and relationship issues. The questions should clarify the person’s story, revealing the nuances of their lives, so the estate planning attorney can really see where they are coming from, consequently, assisting in setting up a plan that suits his or her specific needs.
Once the plan is signed, a funding recommendation spreadsheet should be prepared, with suggested beneficiary and ownership of assets based on certain factors, including the person’s intentions, convenience, probate avoidance, tax minimization estate/gift, capital gains and income tax, liability protection and relationships.
This detailed spreadsheet serves two purposes. First, it allows the estate planner to work with his or her client to properly fund the estate plan. Secondly, if the client passed away, the Trustee would have information immediately rather than spending the next couple years looking for information.
These traditional estate planning documents are the cornerstones that capture and define one’s intentions. But these documents alone cannot relay one’s intention. There are four additional documents that can help complete the estate planning process. (1) A Will provides a place to tell your life experiences and values — our “roots and wings.” (2) A Personal Property Memorandum provides a place where you can pass on your story, as well as the items of personal property — “our hearts are not accountants.” (3) An Advance Care Plan relays what quality of life means to you at end of your life. (4) An Operating Manual for Children provides a place for parents to express their wishes for their children. It will be used by the Trustee or Guardian.
This cycle of estate planning concludes with a family meeting. The family is gathered together and the plan is explained, based on the person’s intentions and expectations — not just with regard to assets, but with regard to person’s end-of-life choices.
This messy and risky conversation can prove to be very challenging, but it is well worth the effort. If you think it is difficult to relay intention while you are living, imagine how difficult it would be when you are gone.
The cycle begins all over again with a period review. Depending on the person’s situation, they may be advised to meet once a year, every three years, every five years, or sooner, if their situation significantly changes. As accommodators of change, estate planners strive to keep their clients’ plans as current as possible.
How do I find an estate planning attorney?
Finding the attorney who is right for you is crucial to a successful plan. Consider the following: Referral. The best way to attain a suitable estate planning attorney is by referral — ask friends, family or co-workers about their experiences with their estate planner.
Experience. Look for someone with at least 10 years of experience in estate planning or someone who works with an experienced estate planner. Seasoned trust-and-estate lawyers can help navigate even the most complicated situations.
Full-Time. Work only with an attorney who practices estate planning on a full-time basis.
Staff. Check whether or not your attorney has sufficient staff to help you when you need it.
Successor. Establish a long-term professional relationship with your attorney. Look for an attorney who is grooming associates to take over.
When determining a Trustee or Guardian, what should you consider?
Whether appointing an agent under a Power of Attorney, a Guardian of children or a Trustee, consider these five questions:
(1) Do you trust this person?
(2) Is this person willing?
(3) Is this person able?
(4) Is this person available?
(5) Is the person married to or involved with who will support this person in helping you?