Any estate planning professional will tell you everyone should have an estate plan. But we also understand that the whole process can feel a bit daunting—finding an estate planning attorney, getting organized, making decisions that will impact your loved ones, and considering your own mortality—the task is not everyone’s cup of tea. To help you finally get this item checked off your To Do list, below is an overview of what you can expect from your first meeting with an estate planner and some things to think about as you prepare.
- What do you have?
A first step in developing your tailored estate plan will be to gather your asset information, including each asset’s type, how it is titled, any beneficiary(ies) named, and approximate value. If you don’t already have this information organized, don’t worry; you’ll usually be provided a questionnaire or checklist to complete as “homework” in advance of or after your first meeting. If you work with a financial planner, they can likely assist with gathering the necessary details.
Your estate planning attorney will need a clear picture of your asset picture for several reasons:
- The overall size of your gross taxable estate at death may subject it to state and/or federal estate tax, warranting a conversation around tax minimization strategies.
- If your assets are mostly illiquid, you may benefit from information about life insurance or other strategies for providing liquidity to pay estate taxes and administration expenses after your death.
- Your estate planning attorney will want to ensure that the titling of your assets both avoids the time and expense of probate at your death, and accomplishes your desired disposition (i.e., who will receive the property).
- Your estate planning attorney may recommend different trust structures or other planning strategies based on the types of assets in your portfolio, whether they have or will likely appreciate significantly in value, the amount of income the assets generate, etc.
Additionally, if you made an estate plan in the past, no matter how long ago, you’ll want to provide copies of those documents to your estate planning attorney. If you are or will likely be a beneficiary of trusts created by parents, grandparents, or other relatives, it’s a good idea to request copies of those documents as well, to the extent possible.
2. What do you want to accomplish?
An estate plan can accomplish myriad objectives beyond simply disposing of assets and avoiding taxes (though these are often paramount). Do you have a child or relative that requires planning for special needs or long-term medical care? Are there individuals that you want to prevent from receiving your assets at all costs? Are you concerned about your child’s spending habits and ability to manage their finances? Do you want to set money aside for education expenses or to accomplish your philanthropic goals? These are just a few significant areas of concern that we often discuss with clients.
Don’t worry if you haven’t nailed down these goals in advance; your estate planning attorney can walk you through the various planning considerations that may apply to your particular circumstances. Also remember that your goals will likely evolve over time as you experience changes in your finances, family dynamics, health, and life stage. It’s important to find an estate planner with whom you work well and who can help you reassess and adjust your planning over time.
3. Who are the trustworthy people in your life?
Several aspects of your estate plan will likely require you to select one or more individuals you trust to act on your behalf, manage your property, and/or carry out your intentions. It’s a good idea to begin thinking about who you trust to competently and responsibly handle these roles. These typically include:
- executor (called a “personal representative” in Massachusetts and some other states) of your estate;
- trustee of your trust;
- guardian of your minor or incapacitated children;
- attorney-in-fact authorized to act on your behalf pursuant to a power of attorney document; and
- health care agent authorized to make medical decisions on your behalf pursuant to a health care proxy document.
You will typically want to consider alternate or “backup” individuals for these roles as well. If you are struggling to decide whom to appoint, your estate planning attorney can help you choose and may be willing to serve in one or more of these roles.
Above all else, invest time in finding an estate planning attorney who is a good fit for you and whose service will extend beyond the delivery of a set of documents for you to sign on the dotted line. A well-versed estate planning attorney can guide you through the various considerations relevant to your personal and financial circumstances, help you understand the planning process, collaborate with you to develop your short- and long-term planning goals, and craft a customized estate plan to get you there.
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