Statistics tell us that while the vast majority of people understand how important it is to have an estate plan, fewer than half of all Americans actually have one in place. Those who have yet to create an estate plan provide numerous reasons for their procrastination. One of the more common explanations centers on the fact that people naturally fear the unknown. When the unknown involves a lawyer’s office, people are even less inclined to venture into the unknown. Add a reluctance to discuss one’s own death to a perfectly understandable fear of the unknown, and it becomes clear why so many people have failed to create an estate plan.
As is the case with most subject matters that are unfamiliar, taking some of the mystery out of estate planning is one way to encourage those who have yet to create an estate plan do so. While each initial consultation is unique to the client, there are some common questions that you can ask yourself ahead of time to help better prepare for your first meeting.
What Are Your Primary Goals?
This may seem like an obvious question; however, estate planning can accomplish numerous goals aside from the primary goal of dividing your estate property. Some additional goals that you may have for your estate plan include:
- Asset protection – are you concerned that creditors of yours, or of an intended beneficiary, may end up with your assets? If so, there are estate planning tools that may be able to help protect those assets.
- Nursing home costs – do you have a concern that you could use up all of your assets for your healthcare needs? If so, planning ahead may solve the problem.
- Retirement planning – many estate planning tools can help organize your assets to provide you with additional retirement income.
- Charitable giving – if philanthropy is an important part of your life, your estate plan could include charitable gifting either during your lifetime or at death, or both.
- Tax avoidance – for those with taxable estates, avoiding gift and estate taxes could be a primary concern.
- Probate avoidance – a well-planned estate can minimize your estate’s exposure to probate, thereby saving your estate time and money.
- Special needs planning – if you have a special needs family member, you must plan ahead. Your estate plan can help.
- Incapacity planning – incapacity can strike at any time. Most people choose to include at least a basic incapacity plan within their estate plan to make sure that a court does not end up deciding who will be in control of healthcare and financial decisions in the event that incapacity does strike.
What Are You Worth?
You likely have a “ballpark” idea of what you are worth; however, the more precise you can be during your initial consultation, the better. Putting together some relevant records and paperwork can help you reach a more exact figure, because people often leave assets out when they try to arrive at a net worth in their head. Although you do not need to bring all of these records to your initial meeting, you may eventually need them so it doesn’t hurt to start rounding them up ahead of time.
- Most recent valuation for any real property you own
- Recent bank statements for all accounts
- A list of securities you own and their approximate value
- Recent statements from investment accounts
- A list of retirement accounts you own (401(k), IRA, pension) with an approximate value for each
- An approximate value for any interest you have in a business
- Values for any “high ticket” personal property such as jewelry, artwork, or rare collections
Whom Do You Owe?
Creditors play an important role in any estate plan. When you die, most major creditors will be paid off before any remaining assets can be passed down to loved ones. For this reason, you may decide that additional life insurance is needed at this point in your life. You may also decide to explore some asset protection techniques with your attorney. Your attorney cannot help you protect your assets from creditors or ensure that there will be assets left after creditors are paid off if you do not provide your attorney with all of the relevant information.
Whom Do You Wish to Protect and Provide for in Your Plan?
Knowing whom you wish to provide for in the event of your death is usually the starting point for your estate plan. There are some common answers such as a spouse or minor children; however, stop and think if there are others as well. Do you have extended family who you are close to and wish to help financially? Do you have family heirlooms that you wish to give to specific people other than your spouse or children? Do you want to gift to a charity that is dear to you? You also may wish to provide for yourself during your golden years as part of your plan. All of these goals can be accomplished with the right estate plan.
Whom Do You Trust?
Every estate plan includes at least one fiduciary role – that of personal representative of your last will and testament. Many plans include others as well such the trustee of a trust, the guardian for minor children, or an agent in a power of attorney. Each of these roles is extremely important and requires someone whom you trust to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of the position. Furthermore, each position calls for someone with slightly different skills or experience. The person you appoint as guardian for your children, for example, might have different skills than the person you appoint as trustee of a trust; however, they each play a significant role in the success of your estate plan. Take some time to choose the best candidate for each of these positions.
Do You Have any Special Circumstances?
No two estate plans are exactly the same, though many include similar components. If you have any special circumstances that may require additional consideration, be sure to bring these up in your meeting. If you have a special needs child, for instance, this calls for additional estate planning techniques aimed at protecting both your assets and your child’s ability to receive much needed state and federal assistance. Another example of a special circumstance could be a child you gave up for adoption many years ago who could surface at some point in the future. Do you want to specifically include or exclude the child in your plan?
Who Will Have Control in the Event of Incapacity?
Unfortunately, many people assume they do not have to worry about becoming incapacitated until they reach retirement age or beyond. The truth though is that a tragic accident or terminal illness could leave you incapacitated at any age. If you become incapacitated, someone will have to make healthcare decisions for you as well as take over control of your financial matters. Your estate plan is your only chance to decide whom that person (or persons) will be. If you fail to make those decisions now, a court may have to make them later. Along with the financial cost of a protracted court battle, the emotional toll on your family and loved ones may be great.
What Are Your Funeral and Burial Wishes?
This is the part of an estate plan that people typically dread discussing the most. No one wants to think about their own funeral, yet most people have very clear opinions on the subject. To ensure that your wishes are honored, you should make funeral planning part of your estate plan. Simply talking to your loved ones about your wishes may not suffice because they will likely be grieving and not thinking clearly when the time comes. In addition, a conversation is not legally binding and does not prevent conflicts among loved ones regarding what your wishes really were. By including a funeral plan within your estate plan, you also have the option to arrange for payment ahead of time in one of several ways.
By asking, and answering, these questions prior to your scheduled consultation with your estate planning attorney, you should feel better informed and more at ease with the subject matter at hand.