Do you already have an estate plan? If so, is it good or is it great? Even if you have not done any planning, where do you begin? How do you hire an attorney that will draft you a GREAT plan?
I would like to begin by saying something about the deceptive name of this particular area of law. Estate Planning sounds fancy. It sounds as if one must have a mansion on a hundred acres of land and some horses, or at least a vacation home somewhere, in order to “qualify” for an estate plan. An estate is simply your net worth, which is your assets minus your debts. But that is also an incomplete way to look at this area of law, because estate planning encompasses so much more than dollars and acres. While I sometimes tell my Clients they do not need a Will, there are some planning tools that I believe are a must for everyone. Great wealth requires a very unique type of planning, tax planning being one of the main concerns, but since I am not and most my Clients are not there (yet), I want to make it clear that estate planning is a valuable and important step for everyone to take, regardless of their current net worth.
So a good estate plan includes a Will, maybe even a Revocable Trust, a Power of Attorney and some healthcare directives. This may seem very comprehensive and sufficient. You will your home to your three children, or your sisters, or your nephew, you make sure to give someone a Power of Attorney to manage your affairs in the event you are unable to, and you have written down some guidance on how medical decisions should be made in the event of a healthcare crisis. Where will your home end up with that plan? In probate. Probate takes months to complete and will cost your family in court costs and attorney fees, as well as in emotional energy, as probate is not a fun process for the family. And what legacy is your family left with? Sounds like none. This brings me to what a great estate plan includes.
First of all, a great estate plan will deal with not only your assets, but also with the essence of your human dignity. YOU are more than dollars and cents. A discussion that your attorney should have with you is what type of memories you want to leave your family with. One of the popular techniques for parents with small children is writing letters. You write a series of letters to your child to be read before their first date, at the time of their high school graduation, on their wedding day, and the hope is that you read those letters together when those milestones are reached. And just imagine the value of those letters to your child that had lost you. I always encourage my Clients who are grandparents, and who take the time, money and heart to plan for their grandchildren, to write down memories for their grandchildren. Even a template-type book like “Grandfather Remembers” can bring a child a sense of peace and familial belonging, amidst loss. I can say this with certainty because my own daughter has one from her late grandfather.
Secondly, a great estate plan will plan for incapacity. If my memory serves me right, a financial planner has once told me that one in six people will become disabled or incapacitated. While six out of those same six people will experience death at some point in their life (probably towards the end of it…haha…this a probate attorney's idea of humor) a more than 15% likelihood of being unable to manage your own affairs sounds like a very good reason to plan for incapacity. A Power of Attorney is a basic tool that is used to plan for incapacity, but there are other documents that you should have in place. ** Please have your existing Power of Attorney reviewed if you had it drafter prior to October of 2011. The law in Florida has changed.**
Another element of a great estate plan is that it avoids probate. Most of my firm's revenue comes from probate administration, and while I absolutely love probate, and however less stressful I try to make it for my Clients, probate is lengthy, sometimes expensive, stressful and inconvenient for my Clients. Some counties are better than others, but in some jurisdictions, you can wait two months just to get to the basic first step of probate. **BIG applause for Delray Beach Courthouse, which has the best Judges, the most knowledgeable staff and an impressively efficient process.** Attorneys have so many tools at their disposal to make sure that not one asset and not one dollar of that Client's ever sees the inside of a probate courtroom. At the same time, I believe that having probate experience, makes me a better estate plan drafter. Because I regularly see how things work out “in real life,” I can draft and plan more effectively.
Lastly, a great estate plan will plan for the unforeseen. Logically, this is an oxymoron, but it makes perfect sense to an experienced estate planning attorney. A good estate plan should include a detailed discussion with your lawyer about all the “what ifs.” If I had a dollar for every time I had a Client tell me “I did not think about that,” I would have to ask my accountant how to classify this additional stream of revenue in QuickBooks. This type of planning is a talent. It is not something lawyers are taught in law school, nor is it something we can make a good checklist for. It is a combination of deep care for each and every Client we serve and a sixth sense of sorts.
In summary, a great estate plan is not a list of forms, or a template, or something that a website can generate for you. It requires not only legal skill and knowledge, but most importantly knowing and understanding YOU as an individual and YOU as part of your unique family and community.
Are you ready to talk about a great estate plan?