For attorneys, the estate planning process begins with your first consultation. Far from being a matter of filling out a template, this is an in-depth meeting to discuss what your assets are, what your goals are, and what issues may arise. Every family is unique and your ultimate estate plan will reflect your individual needs. Some of the questions an estate planning attorney will ask are ones you probably never thought about, and you may not know the answers immediately. To help you make informed decisions at your consultation, these are some questions you should consider before your first meeting.
Who are the relevant players?
Who are the people or organizations that you would want to inherit from you, and who are the people you trust to make major decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to do so? Many people say that they want to divide their assets evenly between all family members because they assume that’s a requirement. It’s not. When it comes to your estate plan, you can include or exclude anyone you wish. You can appoint non-family members as your Agent under a Power of Attorney to act for you, and you can leave your entire estate to a charity if you desire. You worked hard to acquire your wealth and you are free to leave it to whomever you choose.
Who will implement your desires?
All of the estate planning documents (a Will, Trust, Financial Power of Attorney, and Healthcare Power of Attorney) require you to appoint someone who will implement your wishes. This person has various titles depending on what they are appointed to do. You want to appoint a primary individual and a secondary individual who will step in if your first choice person is unable to unwilling to do so. It’s extremely important that you appoint people you trust. If you’re appointing someone to handle your funds, you need to trust that they will be responsible with your money, that they can handle money, and that they will be organized. This is critical because these documents ultimately are used when you aren’t able to speak for yourself; and therefore cannot speak up if the person you elected is acting improperly.
Have you spoken with your appointed executor/trustee/Agent about your desires?
Many people completely overlook this step! They assume that because one child is especially organized that they will want to be an Agent under a Power of Attorney and never ask to make sure they would be able to do so. Likewise, many people assume that their Agent in a Living Will will follow their wishes regarding end of life decisions. None of this can be assumed! Everyone has different levels of comfort for handling funds, distributing assets, or making major (and irreversible) medical decisions. While a conversation beforehand is never 100 percent foolproof, it’s a way to identify at the very beginning if someone is unlikely to perform in that capacity.
Are there any specific issues or people you’re concerned about?
Do you have children or loved ones with ongoing special needs, or someone who has an ongoing drug addiction? If you have anyone in your family who you think wouldn’t be able to handle large amounts of money, then your lawyer can talk with you about holding funds in trust. Not everyone can, or should, receive large amounts of money up front and it’s not disparaging or insulting to admit that someone can’t.
What type of distribution do you want to see?
You can almost always distribute your estate to whomever you wish (the exception being your spouse: you cannot fully disinherit your spouse in Pennsylvania under ordinary circumstances). If you think one particular individual should have a larger share in your estate, it’s important to tell your lawyer that information. You aren’t required to divide everything equally.
These questions are just some to get you started when you’re considering what you want to see. Your first meeting with an estate planning lawyer will include many more than what I listed here. But if you think about these issues beforehand, you can have a really productive conversation and help your lawyer create a plan that meets your needs.