Preparing for an Estate Planning Meeting

Preparing for an estate planning meeting involves considering who you want to benefit, what you own and who is in charge of the processes.

Long ago when I first started doing Kevin’s Korners on Facebook and YouTube, I asked viewers for ideas on topics.  I expected to hear suggestions on how to administer estates, what is probate or complicated tax questions.  Instead, the first response, which was repeated by others, was what is the first step in making an estate plan.  What is the process to begin.  To put it another way, what to consider when preparing for an estate planning meeting.

So, for this blog I wanted to cover some topics and thoughts on preparing for the first meeting with an estate planning attorney.  Preparing to meet with an estate planning attorney for the first time is an opportunity to get organized and think about your wishes for the future. If you meet with your accountant every year to prepare tax returns, this may be a familiar process. It’s a chance to step away from day-to-day activities and focus on your life, as described in a recent article “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney” from The National Law Journal.  So with that, here are some issues to consider when preparing for an estate planning meeting.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but should get you started in the right direction.  You can see here for the Kevin’s Korner video as well.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2M_-tBoSiU 

Minor Children Need Guardians. In most states, families with minor children need to designate one or more guardians to raise the children in the event both parents die. A successor should be named in case the first named guardian is unable or unwilling to serve. Discuss your decision with the people you are naming; don’t leave this as a surprise. Choosing these people is a hard decision. However, don’t let it be a reason to delay creating your estate plan. You do not want your family, or a Court, to guess what your wishes are in this regard.

Agents, Trustees, and Executors (Fiduciaries). A key component of an estate plan is who is in charge of the process, who executes your wishes or speaks for you if you can’t.  These roles, generally called your fiduciaries, are different depending on what task they need to accomplish and which legal document gives them that authority. With a Durable Power of Attorney, your assets can be managed by a named agent, if you become incapacitated. The person who manages your estate after death is the executor. They are named in your will. If you have trusts, the documents that create the trust also name the trustees. It is possible for one person to act as a fiduciary for all of these roles, although the tasks can be divided.  You also always want to consider back-ups should your first choices not be available.

Living Will and Medical Decision-Making. If you are unable to communicate your own medical wishes, an agent can make medical decisions on your behalf, including following the instructions of your Living Will.

Significant Property. Any items of significant property, whether their value is sentimental or monetary, should be considered specifically. This is helpful to avoid  squabbles over sentimental pieces of property, large or small.  Valuable or important property such as the home or business should be considered specifically to avoid delay, costs or other hazards that might affect their value or operation.

Beneficiaries.  This is probably the most obvious issue, but you should consider who will receive your property and in what manner.  For example, you might consider whether to leave your property outright to a beneficiary or put it in a trust to obtain various benefits.  You should consider if you want to take care of as much of your estate plan now as possible to make it easier for your loved ones later.  This is the decision of whether to utilize a will or a trust.  See here for a helpful guide.   https://www.galliganmanning.com/will-vs-living-trust-a-quick-and-simple-reference-guide/  You also should be familiar with the titling of your assets (your name, your and your kids’ names and so on) as well as which assets have beneficiary designations (life insurance and retirement funds are common examples) so that the assets coordinate with your plan.

You should also consider if there are any particular issues with your beneficiaries to be addressed.  For example, minor children may not receive assets until they become of age—18 in most cases- but that is hardly a prudent age to leave someone a windfall.  You can consider the use of a trust to delay the receipt of the property to a more reasonable age.  Similarly, you might want to create asset protection or divorce protection for your beneficiaries and can utilize trusts to help you accomplish that goal.  If you have a loved one with disabilities, you should consider what their needs are and are likely to be in the future.  What kind of resources do they need if you aren’t able to provide for them and where do they get that support.   As a final thought, if you are charitably minded, your estate plan is a great way to make charitable gifts and build a lasting legacy. Charitable donations can also be made to gain tax benefits for heirs.

Surviving Pets. You can plan for your pet’s care, if you pass away or become incapacitated before they die. Most states permit the creation of a pet trust, an enforceable means of providing assets to be used for the care and well-being of your pet.

Once you’ve considered the above in preparing for an estate planning meeting, you’ll have an idea of what your estate planning goals are.  That way, your meeting with a competent estate planning attorney will focus on how to accomplish those goals and you can discuss which documents are necessary to do so.

Reference: The National Law Journal (Feb. 23, 2021) “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney”

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Should you Update your Estate Plan if you Move to a New State?

Moving to a new state might mean estate plan changes for legal reasons, but more likely because of your change in circumstances.

I recently had a discussion with a client regarding whether and how they should update their estate plan if they move to a new state.  That conversation comes up frequently, so I thought it would be a great topic for a blog article.

The U.S. Constitution requires states to give “full faith and credit” to the laws of other states. As a result, your will, trust, power of attorney, and health care proxy executed in one state should be honored in every other state.  However, even if they are “valid” in another state doesn’t mean they will work well under that state’s laws or that they will work as well in practice, as described in Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Moving to a New State? Be Sure to Update Your Estate Plan.”

Your last will should still be legally valid in the new state. However, the new state may have different probate laws that make certain provisions of the will invalid or no longer ideal.  By way of example, Texas has a unique form of probate in which there is an independent executor.  This minimizes court involvement in the probate which is what most clients prefer.  We often revise wills of clients moving to Texas to authorize independent executors.  Similarly, other states might have other unique provisions that you would want to utilize in that state.

This can also happen with revocable trusts, however trusts tend to be more portable.  Once a trust is funded, you can change any provisions you need to ensure it works in that state and you can elect that state’s laws.  So, it might need to be updated, but often is more portability.

You may also want to update your estate plan if you move to a new state to change your powers of attorney and health care directives. These estate planning documents should be honored from state to state, but sometimes banks, medical professionals, and financial and health care institutions will refuse to accept the documents and forms.  Each state has very specific roles on how these are created and what they can accomplish, so it is typically advisable to create new ancillary documents based upon the law of the new state.

It is also helpful to keep in mind that it is practically important to redo ancillaries documents because lawyers and judges aren’t the ones reviewing them.  Court systems will know how a will or trust applies under that state’s law because lawyers are involved in the process.  Incapacity documents such as the power of attorney and health care directives are reviewed by non-legal professionals such as title companies, doctors, bankers or their support staffs.  So practically speaking, it is easier to give them what they expect to see as they won’t have the expertise to recognize whether an out of state document is valid.

You should also know that the execution requirements of your estate planning documents may be different, depending on the state.

For example, there are some states that require witnesses on durable powers of attorney, and others that do not. A state that requires witnesses may not allow a power of attorney without witnesses to be used to convey real estate, even though the document is perfectly valid in the state where it was drafted and signed.

When you move to a different state, it’s also a smart move to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney because interstate moves often mean another change in circumstances that would necessitate a change to the estate plan.  For example, the move might have been because of a change in income, marital state or to support a family member in ill health.  You can see here for other reasons to consider updating your estate plan at that point.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/when-to-update-your-estate-plan/

Moreover, there may be practical changes you want to make. For example, you may want to change your trustee or agent under a power of attorney based on which family members will be closer in proximity or to someone familiar with the new property.  This is also a good time to review trust funding as you will have new assets.

For all these reasons, when you move out of state it’s wise to have an experienced estate planning attorney in your new home state review your estate planning documents.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 26, 2021) “Moving to a New State? Be Sure to Update Your Estate Plan”

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What Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?

Clients often make these estate planning mistakes which jeopardize family harmony and expose families to anxiety, delay and unnecessary cost.

Estate planning for any sized estate is an important responsibility to loved ones. Done correctly, it can help families flourish over generations, control how legacies are distributed and convey values from parents to children to grandchildren. However, a failed estate plan, says a recent article from Suffolk News-Herald titled “Estate planning mistakes to avoid,” can create bitter divisions between family members, become an expensive burden and even add unnecessary stress to a time of intense grief.

Here are some estate planning mistakes to avoid:

This is not the time for do-it-yourself estate planning.

An unexpected example comes from the late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger.  He wrote a 176 word will, which cost his heirs more than $450,000 in estate taxes and fees. A properly prepared estate plan could have saved the family a huge amount of money, time and anxiety.  This example also points out that even brilliant legal minds make mistakes if they aren’t experts in this area!

Don’t neglect to update your will or trust.

Life happens and relationships change. When a new person enters your life, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or other event, your estate planning wishes may change. The same goes for people departing your life. Death and divorce should always trigger an estate plan review.  Clients often confront this estate planning mistake at this time of year as part of new years resolutions or as part of a financial check-up with their financial advisors, so now is an excellent time to consider it.

Don’t be coy with heirs about your estate plan.

Heirs don’t need to know down to the penny what you intend to leave them but be wise enough to convey your purpose and intentions, at least to the individuals in charge of the plan. If you are leaving more uneven amounts to children for example, it may be a kindness to explain why to your love ones.  Otherwise, they will be forced to come up with their own answers, which may lead to fighting. If you want your family to remain a family, share your thinking and your goals.

If there are certain possessions you know your family members value, making a list those items and who should get what. This will avoid family squabbles during a difficult time. Often it is not the money, but the sentimental items that cause family fights after a parent dies.  Some of the worst estate disputes I’ve ever dealt with were over sentimental items.

Clients often ask about this topic, so see this article if you are interested in more information.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-to-avoid-family-fighting-in-my-estate/  

Understand what happens if you are not married to your partner.

Unmarried partners do not receive many of the estate tax breaks or other benefits of the law enjoyed by married couples. Unless you have an estate plan in place, your partner will not be protected. Owning property jointly is just one part of an estate plan. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect each other. The same applies to planning for incapacity. You will want to have appropriate incapacity planning documents such as financial and medical Powers of Attorney so that you may speak with each other’s financial institutions and medical providers.

Don’t neglect to fund a trust once it is created.

It’s easy to create a trust and it’s equally easy to forget to fund the trust. That means retitling assets that have been placed in the trust or adding enough assets to a trust, so it may function as designed. Failing to retitle assets has left many people with estate plans that did not work.  Happily this is a very easy estate planning mistake to correct, though you should consult an attorney on how to properly utilize your trust.

Don’t be naive about people you put in charge of your estate plan.

It is not pleasant to consider that people in your life may not be interested in your well-being, but in your finances or other self-serving motivations. However, we see this all the time. This concern must be confronted honestly, even when it is children, during the estate planning process. Elder financial abuse and scams are extremely common. Family members and seemingly devoted caregivers have often been found to have ulterior motives. Be smart enough to recognize when this occurs in your life.

Reference: Suffolk News-Herald (Dec. 15, 2020) “Estate planning mistakes to avoid”

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