Did you ever think about “doing your Wills” then just stop in the face of the seemingly daunting task of finding the right lawyer for the job? Did you ever wonder if you really needed it or if you could even afford it? Anna, another crazy-busy attorney-mama of two little ones (and my sister in the late-night-working world) who blogs at Motherly Law, asked me to write a guest post for her readers in the form of a practical, how-to guide to finding an estate planning attorney. I was happy to oblige and hope you’ll find it useful too.
As she says, Anna and I occasionally, respectfully, disagree. For examples: I wouldn’t say I have a “specialty” so much as a particular focus born out of empathy. I welcome matters in the areas of adoption, estate planning, and residential real estate, and most of my clients do tend to be other busy parents of young children to whom I can easily relate. I wouldn’t call what I do “family law” either for fear of fielding even more requests for assistance with divorce, child custody, child support, and the like. I have some wonderful colleagues to whom I am happy to refer those matters. My definition of estate planning may also be much broader than Anna’s, which seems a bit more focused on what happens after we’re dead as the starting point. That may account, in part, for our difference of opinion about Do-It-Yourself (DIY) estate planning with basic forms, though I have on a few very limited occasions recommended it as an alternative.
Anna notes, in a previous post she wrote about her own process with naming guardians for her totally adorable children, that state laws vary. For example, a “living will” means something different here in Massachusetts than how Anna defined it based apparently on Minnesota law. And as Anna also notes, some DIY attempts may not be recognized at all. Massachusetts requires: (1) an actual writing, (2) signed by the person creating the Will (the “Testator”), (3) two witnesses who are not named in the plan, and (4) a Notary Public to create a valid Will.
Different states also have different tax laws that apply to decedents’ estates (i.e. whatever people have left in the way of assets when they die). Here in Massachusetts, where the cost of living is relatively high and (despite the recent downturn in the housing market) home values are correspondingly higher than in other parts of the country, we also have a much lower threshold for filing an estate tax return at the state level than at the federal level. Accordingly, more regular middle and upper middle class people (not just the very wealthy), are likely to have potentially taxable estates. And unlike the very wealthy for whom losing a chunk of change to estate taxes and probate court fees and expenses may not be such a big hit, it may be for others who perhaps don’t feel quite so wealthy but whose estates would, nonetheless, potentially owe estate taxes.
So although we may consider our circumstances to be pretty straightforward and uncomplicated requiring nothing more than a simple Will, with a little more information we may be surprised to discover it’s not that simple at all…or maybe it really is. I know I never learned how to draft my own basic, estate planning, legal documents while in high school in Massachusetts, did you? (That, however, didn’t stop me from trying! Seriously, but that’s a story for another day…) The point is, a lawyer should be able to help you understand your circumstances (both inter-personally amongst your family and financially), listen to your goals and concerns, and apply all of those facts to the laws of your state and then advise you about your best course of action. As I said, one size does not fit all and that is precisely my concern with the less than fully-informed, uncounseled, DIY approach.