The estate planning process is relatively straightforward – assuming clients have everything they need with them or readily accessible. Successful estate planning requires a comprehensive approach that includes both the mental and legacy aspects of your estate and its assets, as well as the financial particulars.
10 Things To Do Before Meeting with An Estate Lawyer
Here are 10 things to do before or to have at the ready when meeting with your selected estate lawyer.
Find the right estate law professional for your needs
First and foremost, it’s essential that you feel comfortable with the lawyer you select. You’ll be covering sensitive and, sometimes emotionally challenging ground. The more you trust your estate planner, the easier it will be to move through sensitive or delicate information together.
We recommend using our post, What to Ask Before Hiring an Estate Planning Attorney, to guide your decision-making process. Then, after meeting with three to five lawyers in your area, you’ll have a good sense of which one feels like the best fit.
Prioritize guardianship or conservatorship for your children
If you have children, your first priority is to establish who will take care of them should you become incapacitated or pass away. Unfortunately, you have to think in “worst-case” terms. If you and your spouse were to be killed together in a plane crash or automobile accident, there should be a Plan B ready to put in place. This saves your family and your children from fielding stressful legal considerations at such an already tender and devastating time.
In estate law, this legal arrangement is called guardianship or conservatorship. You can designate a solo person, a couple, or a team of people to support your children and care for them in your absence. Again, asking permission beforehand is essential to ensure everyone is up for the job.
Durable Power of Attorney selection
Again, we like to operate around the idea of you first, then your heirs and beneficiaries. It’s important to make an early decision about who your durable power of attorney (POA) will be if an accident, medical condition, or age-related memory loss renders you unable to make decisions for yourself.
Your attorney will discuss scenarios in which a POA takes care of business. First and foremost, a POA typically handles all legal and financial responsibilities, and s/he may also be designated to make medical decisions based on your medical directive.
Create an Advanced Medical Directive
Advanced medical directives provide both general and detailed instructions on the types of medical treatments, resuscitation, and/or life support measures you want in case you’re unable to answer for yourself. While your POA can take on this role, some clients prefer to have one person act as their POA while designating a different person to handle their medical decision-making. In that case, you can establish a legal healthcare advocate.
While a family member may be the one best suited to handle medical decisions, we often encourage clients to think about trusted friends or colleagues who may be better suited to make difficult decisions in accordance with your directives, rather than family or loved ones who may experience deep conflict. Again, your estate attorney has specific advanced directive templates for you to choose from. In the meantime, visit California Advance Directive Forms to learn more about things to consider and the importance of sharing copies of the legal document with your physician, spouse, immediate family members, medical
Many clients like to list personal properties they want to move on to beneficiaries and heirs, even if their spouse is still living. This is important to know ahead of time. This may include cars, jewelry, pieces of art, heirlooms, or any beloved or meaningful belongings you want to go to designated family members or friends. Make a list of items/properties and who will receive them ahead of time.
All other properties and assets
Similarly, make a list of all other properties, assets, financial accounts, etc., to bring in. Most retirement, investment, and bank accounts, as well as life insurance policies, had you select beneficiaries from the start. Review all account/policy beneficiaries to ensure they reflect current intentions.
Other considerations include business interests or digital assets.
Did you know you can designate charities as “beneficiaries” of your estate? In addition to knowing you’re leaving a legacy to non-profits and charities that inspire you, an attorney may find ways your estate plan can benefit now, or in the future, using charitable trusts to offset current and future taxes or estate fees.
Speak to your family
We recommend speaking to your immediate family as you prepare to meet with an estate planning attorney. This is a good time to see if anyone has any special requests for particular heirlooms. You may find that seemingly incidental item mean a great deal to a child or grandchild who associates them with fond memories. Or, you may learn that something you thought should go to one heir means more to another.
If family members are going to be designated POAs, medical/health advocates, or a trustee/executors, this is the time to check-in. It is a big responsibility and it could be that your first choice isn’t as eager or willing to take on the role as you imagined. That’s great information, allowing you to make a new choice before anything is officially documented.
Keep in mind there’s no need to be 100% transparent about every detail. Read What Estate Information to Share With Heirs to learn more about that topic.
Learn more about distributions to beneficiaries
Keep an open mind about how your estate and assets are distributed to beneficiaries. Depending on the size of your estate and your beneficiaries’ current reality, it may make sense to structure longer-term distributions to minimize tax burdens or potential fees. Estate plans are highly customizable, so we can help you determine things like:
- Are you a divorced or blended family? If so, that poses questions to ensure an estate is divided equitably according to the client’s wishes.
- How old should beneficiaries be when they receive their distribution?
- Does it make sense to make distributions all at once, or does it make more sense to break them into annual, phased, payouts (such as every other year or every five years, or at certain points along a beneficiaries’ lifetime?)
- Do you have an interest in specifying a distribution’s purpose, such as college tuition, vocational training, to support medical costs, or as a down payment on a home?
- Equalizing portions are established to ensure younger children have the same access to tuition or other milestone funding as their older siblings did?
What about your pets?
Do you have a plan set in place to take care of your pets? Estate plans can ensure any pets you have are taken care of in terms of their new caretakers as well as funds to provide for their future food, veterinary care, and accessories.