There are many hurdles to overcome in getting your Will and other estate planning documents done. One of the biggest is the uncertainty of what will occur and how much it will cost. Most people have not had to consult with a lawyer, or if they have, it may have been a very unpleasant experience. One of the reasons I enjoy estate planning work so much is that it emphasizes the “counselor” part of my license to practice law. The situation is rarely adversarial and the conversations nearly always constructive. The point is, you will need professional assistance to craft your estate plan. The only trained professional to handle the documents is a licensed attorney. I have commented in separate blogs about the dangers of on line will planning software. Suffice it to say here, that the stakes are far too high for taking chances with something as important to you and your family.
So, what will happen at the meeting? I usually schedule an hour to meet with new clients. It is important to become acquainted and to talk face-to-face for me to understand your estate, your goals, and your motivation. Understanding the estate means going over your assets and liabilities. I generally do not do so with loan officer like precision. Instead, I am trying to gain a good overview of your assets and liabilities. We will spend a fair amount of time on this. There are many reasons but the chief among them is that crafting a plan requires knowing what the components of that plan will be. In addition, I will be asking for how things have already been set up. Assets such as life insurance and retirement accounts often have beneficiaries named. These may be obsolete. People mistakenly assume that a new will or living trust will “trump” any of those designations, when the opposite is normally true. In other words, you may write a Will but it may control only a fraction of your estate if most of your assets are held in accounts with named beneficiaries. Consequently, as we identify financial assets, I will be asking you how your beneficiaries are currently structured. I discourage you from assuming they are all up to date. It is not difficult for you to check with your plan administrator, life insurance company, or investment advisor or bank in order to be sure. In order to understand your goals, I will go over your family situation. We will talk a bit about what you hope to accomplish. It is important to understand what values you hold because these will inform the way you design your estate. Many people assume that everything will go to their immediate family. While this may be reflective of your primary values, you may have others such as churches, charities, other individuals that matter to you for which you would like to supply something. Those questions in turn give rise to tax issues which the lawyer must evaluate. Some gifts are best made from retirement assets, some best from life insurance or the general estate. Sometimes, individuals have negative motivation. In other words, there may be a family member who would normally be a beneficiary of yours, that you may not wish to support. In that event, it is important to have a frank discussion with your lawyer to head off the possibility of future Will contests.
Next, we will discuss how you want to divide your estate. Part of this will require covering the “what if’s” in the event you should outlive your primary beneficiaries. It helps if you have given a little thought to this ahead of time. Planning for the major contingencies is an important part of responsible estate planning. If there are disabled heirs or beneficiaries, special provisions should be made. If the estate is large enough to face federal or state estate taxes, further conversation will follow to utilize the best strategies available. Finally, we will talk about your personnel. You will identify the individuals you would like to serve as your executor, and on your financial power of attorney and your medical power of attorney. While it seems like a lot of ground cover, we are normally able to get through most of it in a single meeting. I often send clients home with “homework” from their lawyer. Until I have developed the basic picture, it is not possible for me to estimate the cost. It would be as if you took your car to your mechanic and asked them for a repair estimate before you told him what was wrong. I am generally able at the end of the first conference to give a good faith estimate of the cost. If I am not engaged to do the work, I do not charge for the conference. If I am, then the cost of that conference is wrapped into the project. For most work I do, I bill based on a fixed fee schedule. Not every lawyer works this way. For other work I am asked to do, such as reviewing life insurance policies, talking to accountants or financial professionals, amending beneficiary designations, reviewing other documents, I bill at my regular hourly rate. While I cannot tell you here how much it will cost, I can tell you that you will have a good faith estimate by the time we are done the first conference and if you prefer not to continue, you will not be charged for the time.
Finally – a word about who should come. First: who should come: BOTH husband and wife. It may take some effort to schedule, but if you are married and the plan will be for both spouses, then both need to attend the initial meeting. Second, who should NOT come: anybody else! Lawyers are governed by strict confidentiality rules. For this reason, we do not include your children or other persons in our meetings. Our conference will be limited to you and your spouse. The reason: Wills can be attacked and potentially declared invalid if someone exerts “undue influence” over you in the process of making your will. One of the surest signs of the presence of such influence is the presence of someone else in the attorney conference. To protect the integrity of the process, and to assure your plans will be achieved and won’t be open to attack – we must exclude all others from the client conference and the signing. While this can seem “rude” to helpful family members, it is only to protect you and ultimately your heirs. I am happy to meet and introduce myself to any family members you wish, and can have general conversations about estate planning in their presence, but all issues of substance will be covered privately. I hope this helped dispel some of the mystery and that we will have a chance to meet someday.