Just about every day, I read a post on one of my estate planning listserves, in which an attorney is searching for the will of a deceased person. I want to make sure that no one ever has to search for your will and that your plan will always work for your family, so here are 3 major guidelines for making sure that your estate plan is going to work:
1) Think realistically about the price. Attorneys typically charge $200-400 per hour. We meet for 2 hours with our clients before we even get started drafting their plan. How could I charge $500? By filling your name in the blanks and hitting print. By asking, “What do you want me to do?” and then saying, “OK, sure!” when you say, “I just need a simple will.” But that would not be lawyering. Lawyering would be getting the information that I need from you, then showing you what things would look like for you and your family if you died or were incapacitated with your current plan in place. Lawyering would be pointing out any areas of concern and offering alternative planning solutions to avoid any unpleasant scenarios. After you have that professional advice, you can have it your way.
2) Find out what will most likely happen if you are incapacitated and when you die. Find out what the process looks like, and if there are any scenarios that you would rather avoid. Through proper planning, you can avoid just about any unpleasant scenario, such as probate (a court process dealing with the deceased’s assets) and conservatorship proceedings (a court process dealing with an incapacitated person’s assets). The key is in starting from a place of getting an education about your situation, then making a decision from there.
3) Make sure you work with an attorney who has a plan for ongoing communication and follow-up with you and your family throughout the years. This is the main key to not having your name pop up on the listserve after you die. My office accomplishes this in three ways. First, we do not charge fees for ongoing communication. Clients can always call us and know they are not going to get a surprise bill in the mail. Second, we do a free plan review for our clients every three years. They always know what their family situation looks like. Last, we communicate with everyone involved in the client’s plan, so they know how to contact us if something happens to our client.
If you follow those three guidelines, you will never end up on my listserve. Your family will be very, very grateful for that.
You might be thinking to yourself, “That’s great, but I don’t have $1500-2000 or $3000-6000. All I’ve got is $500.” To that, I say ask your attorney to set up a payment plan for you. You can’t afford not to do necessary planning. Estate Planning is something that every person needs to do, especially if you have kids, and especially if you own any assets at all (and yes, you own your house even if you have a mortgage on it).
I fear that people do not know what they are getting when they buy a $500 estate plan. What they are getting is papers – papers that may not work, may not be found, or may not be helpful if the client is incapacitated (which is far likelier to happen than a premature death). And these papers are supposed to protect your family. They are supposed to ensure that your family has easy access to what they need to take care of themselves. They are supposed to ensure that your family does not have to spends thousands of dollars and several months in court trying to get everything sorted out. What you stand to lose if your plan does not work is the security of your family.