Estate planning is a difficult subject to think about. It forces people to think about financial matters that will occur while they are living and after they have died. It’s extremely important to ensure your assets are managed correctly and that your next generational family members will receive their inheritance without any issues.
There are several questions that need to be answered when drafting a will. Because estate planning varies greatly from person to person, it would be nearly impossible to prepare for every question an estate planning lawyer will ask. Most estate planning lawyers will provide you with paperwork to fill out prior to any consultations.
Although most lawyers can draw up a will for straightforward situations, such as naming the beneficiary of one’s 401(k), expert trust and estate lawyers can help clients navigate more complicated legal situations involving several trusts and multiple heirs.
Who Are the Important People in Your Life?
This is probably the most important question an estate planning attorney will ask you. Family set up greatly affects the estate planning process. In fact, some states have laws that won’t let a person write certain relatives out of a will. Are you married? Most states protect spouses from being written out of a will. Absent a spouse, the rest of your estate is generally fair game. Do you have someone that you wish to leave out of your will? An estate will be distributed either according to the will or, by law, in the absence of a will.
To plan for your estate, a lawyer needs to know about those people in your family tree because, even if you want to leave someone out, if there’s a missing piece within your will, rules of state law will take over to fill in the gap.
Children aren’t typically financially protected as spouses are, but you still need to be specific. How many children do you have? What are their ages? Do you have stepchildren that you want to be treated with, like your biological children, with respect to estate distribution? Who will take care of your children in the event something happens to both parents?
This question doesn’t have to be restricted to family members either, as many wish to leave part of their estate to those that aren’t related by blood.
What Do Your Finances Look Like?
Putting together a list of your finances will help your estate planning attorney make the best decisions for your financial future. Since most states have estate and gift tax laws for assets that exceed certain amounts, you’ll need to make your attorney aware of every asset and liability to your name. Are your banking accounts joint accounts with your spouse? What goes into an estate is entirely dependent on the owner of the property.
Do you own your home, or is it mortgaged? If you plan to leave your home to your children, whether or not it is owned or mortgaged through a bank makes a difference. Do you have credit card debt? What about medical expenses? Do you owe the IRS? Paying off medical expenses and any federal or state tax debts will always take precedence (minus very few spousal exceptions). The same rules apply to other debts.
Do you Want to Create a Comprehensive Estate Plan that Includes Wills, Trusts, and Life Insurance?
You may have multiple types of wills, trusts, and life insurance plans. A comprehensive estate plan can include all of them. It’s important to hire a knowledgeable estate attorney in all of these areas. Your estate attorney can help you understand the nuances of each estate-planning tool and determine which ones might be right for you.
What is your Budget?
Many estate-planning attorneys charge flat rate fees instead of billing by the hour. Some attorneys do both, charging fixed rates for standard services like establishing a trust and then charging hourly rates for special research tasks.
It’s wise to inform your attorney about your budget to make a compensation model ahead of time and avoid surprises.
What Do You Want to Give Away?
Once you take out any spousal shares and pay off the estate’s liabilities, it’s time to talk about personal bequeathments. Do you want to leave a sum of money to your favorite niece? Do you want to set up a trust fund for your children? How about those heirloom pearls your mother gave you?
How Quickly do you Need your Estate Planning Project to be Completed?
There are generally no extreme rushes in estate planning projects, but you may wish to discuss aspects of your estate plan with accountants, retirement planners, or money managers. An estate planning attorney’s expertise may overlap with these fields, but attorneys are generally not tax experts or investment advisors. Give yourself enough time to gain a broader, big-picture perspective on your estate plan, the logical practicalities of implementing it, and your long-term needs.
What Documents do you Have?
Even if you’re working with an experienced attorney, you should review all documents and forms together to avoid miscommunications. Be clear about what you’d like to be changed.
What’s Your Retirement Planning Look Like?
Retirement funds will go to a listed beneficiary and will not flow into a decedent’s estate. Rules regarding the distribution of retirement funds fall under contract law rather than estate law. If there is no listed beneficiary for some reason, then retirement funds would flow into an estate and be probated according to the terms of the will.
Do You Have Life Insurance?
Life insurance also falls under contract law, which means it will be distributed according to the life insurance policy. You can, however, list a trust as a beneficiary on a life insurance policy, and the terms of a trust can be contained within a will.
Have You Gone Through a Divorce?
Believe it or not, this question matters. Depending on the terms of a divorce settlement agreement, your estate planning attorney will need to know if your ex-spouse has any claims to child support, alimony, retirement accounts, or life insurance proceeds.
How Do You Feel About a Revocable Living Trust?
Putting assets into revocable living trusts can avoid the costly and timely probate process of filing a will with the court. However, a revocable living trust may not be the best move for everyone. Revocable living trusts don’t void inheritances, estates, or income taxes. Some lawyers recommend these structures.
What Other Issues Would You Like to Address?
As the human life expectancy increases, so does the probability of long-term physical problems and mental health issues. Estate attorneys exist to help clients financially prepare for the possibility of disability or dementia by drawing up powers of attorney, healthcare instructions, and living wills.
All the Questions No One Wants to Answer
Unfortunately, estate planning means answering tough questions. Are you aware of any life-threatening illnesses? What are your wishes for after you’ve passed? If you have any specific wishes or religious requests, these are things your estate planning attorney will want to know.
Where Can You Find the Right Lawyer?
Planning out your will may seem like a tedious process, but an experienced estate lawyer can help you navigate through the ins and outs of planning for your future.