The term “estate plan” refers to an end of life plan that encompasses a will and other such documents, which provides instructions regarding how a person wishes for their belongings to be redistributed when they die. These instructions generally state what property should be given to which beneficiary, and when. However, estate planning can also provide a plan for legal guardianship arrangements.
Estate law governs the manner in which a decedent’s estate is handled. This includes overseeing how their property is managed during their lifetime, as well when they die or have become incapacitated.
To be specific, “estate” refers to all personal belongings, real property, and intangible assets, such as patents or copyrights. If the property has any debt and taxes attached, those amounts may also be included as part of the estate. As such, estate law covers a broad range of legal matters, which includes virtually anything relating to a person’s real property and its financial aspects.
Some examples include the following:
- Estate planning;
- Estate administration, which specifically refers to the process of managing and distributing a person’s estate after they die;
- Duties of the executor, as an executor is responsible for the distribution of a decedent’s estate;
- Distribution of property; and
Additionally, estate laws are based on the local and state statutes in a particular jurisdiction. Because of this, laws often vary depending on the state involved. In order to prepare for a strong estate planning case, it is important to understand how this can have an effect on how an estate legal issue is handled. This, in turn, will impact the outcome of the solution to any disputes that may arise as related to estate planning.
A major issue that is frequently impacted by the different laws enacted by each state is how a decedent’s property gets distributed to spouses, children, and other recipients when they become incapacitated, deceased, or divorced.
Some common examples of the types of disputes over an estate include:
- Disputes over property distribution, such as when the decedent intended for someone to receive certain property, but did not change their estate plan to reflect this;
- Conflicts in which the property has been distributed unfairly;
- Disputes regarding the validity of the will and the estate, such as disputes over the possibility that the will was not executed properly;
- Conflicts involving the estate executor or administrator, such as when the executor is engaged in some form of mismanagement of the estate;
- Issues involving sudden incapacitation or disability on the part of the estate’s owner;
- Issues related to the decedent being coerced into making a will change, or, undue influence; and
- Disputes in which the decedent generally did not understand what they were doing when they made any changes to their estate plan, which is also referred to as incompetence.
What Type of Documents and Questions Should I Bring to My Wills, Trusts, and Estates Attorney?
Before hiring an attorney to handle your estate planning case, you should arrange for an initial legal consultation. A legal consultation is an initial meeting with an attorney, usually free of charge, that takes place before you decide whether to hire that attorney.
An initial legal consultation is an opportunity to get to know each other, exchange information related to your estate planning case, and ask the attorney questions. The attorney will use this meeting to determine whether they can legally and competently represent you, based on the information that you provide.
What exactly is discussed in a legal consultation will vary, depending on your particular legal issues and the circumstances surrounding your case. Generally speaking, you and the attorney will discuss fee structures, as well as legal facts and your claim. It is imperative that you are completely honest when telling the attorney about your particular case. Lying about the facts or circumstances surrounding your case, even when those facts do not reflect well on you, may lead to criminal sanctions or other civil penalties down the road.
Another reason to be completely honest during a legal consultation is that legal consultations are confidential. This means that what you disclose to the attorney will not be discussed outside of the meeting room, and cannot be used against you later in Court.
To make the most of this initial meeting, you should prepare by gathering all documentation you have related to your estate planning case. Bring every document you have for the attorney to review, as they will be able to properly determine which documents are relevant, and which are not relevant to your case. Some general examples of documents that you should bring with you to a consultation include:
- Police or accident reports;
- Property deeds or any documents relating to the property, such as an oil and gas lease;
- Employment records, if your claim is an employment dispute; and/or
- Other documents which provide evidence of damages, such as medical records or expenses.
In terms of estate planning cases specifically, the following documents would be especially important for you to bring to your attorney:
- Last will and testament;
- Revocable living trust;
- Beneficiary designations;
- A durable power of attorney;
- Healthcare power of attorney;
- Living will;
- Digital asset trust;
- Letter of intent; and
- An updated list of other important documents, such as life insurance policies and divorce records.
Finally, you should prepare a list of any questions you may have for the attorney. Such questions could be specific to your estate planning case, or may be related to the attorney themselves. Some examples of such questions may include:
- The attorney’s legal education and qualifications;
- Past experience in the legal field;
- Experience with cases related or similar to yours;
- The outcome of cases similar to your estate planning case; and
- Any issues they may already foresee with your case.
It is important to note that an initial legal consultation does not mean that the attorney is officially representing you. For an attorney to legally represent your case, there must be a written representation agreement signed by both you and the attorney. However, as previously mentioned, everything that you communicate with an attorney during a consultation will remain privileged and confidential. It will be as if an attorney-client privilege had formed.
What Types of Estate Planning Cases Benefit the Most from an Attorney’s Help?
An attorney can assist in the estate planning process itself, long before any issues arise. In fact, having an attorney prepare or review documents related to your estate is a good way to reduce the probability of future issues arising. Additionally, an attorney will be prepared to move forward despite any estate law violations.
Violations of estate laws can occur under many circumstances, such as:
- When two parties dispute over the estate property;
- If there are probate challenges regarding the beneficiaries, or an estate executor’s actions connected to a will; or
- Issues with the actual estate documents themselves.
The remedies for estate violations often include a solution intended to change the way in which the property has been distributed among the beneficiaries. For issues that involve problems with an estate document, the court may sometimes allow the parties to rewrite the document. This would only be so long as the estate holder or administrator consents to having the document rewritten. These types of estate planning cases benefit the most from an attorney’s help.
When Do I Need an Estate Planning Attorney?
Estate laws and estate planning cover a wide range of topics. These varied topics can have a direct impact on a person’s property and possessions. Additionally, state laws provide different definitions and guidelines.
Because of this, if you are involved in estate planning or have an estate planning case, you should consult with a skilled and local estate lawyer. An experienced and local estate planning attorney would be best suited for understanding your state’s specific estate laws, and how those laws will affect the outcome of your case.
An experienced attorney can assist you with tasks such as drafting, reviewing, and editing estate planning documents. Additionally, they can also provide representation for any related court matters, should you become involved in an estate law dispute.