National Estate Planning Awareness Week Blog Series – Post 5

McGuire Wood & Bissette Attorney Doris Phillips Loomis

More than half of all Americans lack essential estate planning documents (2017 Survey by Caring.com).  If you don’t yet have your estate plan in order, now may be a great time to get started.  National Estate Planning Awareness Week is October 15th through the 21st.  In recognition of National Estate Planning Awareness Week, five MWB Trusts & Estates attorneys are posting a series of blogs designed to help explain the who, what, when, why, and how of estate planning.  We hope the articles encourage you to face the hard questions, make difficult decisions, and take action with respect to your own estate plan. By doing so, you create peace of mind for yourself and your family.

We encourage you to share this valuable information with your family, friends, and colleagues.  Please see the McGuire Wood & Bissette website for more information on our attorneys and service areas.

October 19, 2018 – Today’s post is from Doris Phillips Loomis.

DO YOU NEED YOUR ATTORNEY IN THE ESTATE PLANNING PROCESS?

We are all familiar with online websites that offer the preparation of “a personalized legal document specific to your state” to individuals in need of estate planning services. Those using the services of such websites are often asked to complete questionnaires requesting basic asset information, names of desired beneficiaries, individuals or entities to serve as Executors or Trustees under a will or trust agreement and individuals to serve as guardians for minor or disabled children.

Based on the information provided, a computerized system generates documents based on the answers provided in the form of a powers of attorney, a will and/or trust agreement. In particular, a will and/or trust agreement can serve as the vehicle under which the client’s assets are directed to be distributed. What does not happen in this automated process is the interchange of ideas and issue identification that docs occur during an in-person office conference between a client and an attorney engaged to perform estate planning services for you. Not only is it likely in the “computerized fillable form format” that something will be “lost in translation,” but it is more than likely important questions will be left unasked and unanswered.

Prior to a first conference with a client, the estate planning attorneys in our firm request that the client complete a Confidential Personal Information form. This document provides the client with the opportunity to share information about their families and other intended beneficiaries, types of assets and liabilities comprising their estate, including the manner in which the assets are titled, beneficiary designations, the existence of pre or post marital agreements, and anticipated gifts or inheritances. The information is not provided in a “check the block” format, but has spaces for descriptions and explanations and questions from the client.

At the first conference with the completed Confidential Personal Information form in-hand, the attorney is prepared to listen to the goals of the client presented across a conference room table. Absorbing what the client shares, the attorney advises whether the current titling of assets and beneficiary designations and the provisions of any estate planning documents are sufficient to assure that those goals will be reached. Suggestions are offered, alternatives are discussed and decisions are ultimately made by the client based on the personal legal advice presented.

Many, if not most, clients arrive to initial appointments already believing that they know what documents are required and what the documents should say. However, in many cases the documents themselves and/or the terms of those documents vary from what the client initially expected. For example, many older married couples come in believing that simple documents are needed designating one another as primary beneficiary and decisionmaker in the event of incapacity. However, what if one spouse has already been diagnosed with a terminal illness? Planning in advance for long-term care is part of the estate planning process. A second common example is selecting the right executor and decisionmaker. Many clients mistakenly believe that the child closest geographically or oldest child must be the primary designee, rather than selecting the best individual for the job. It is these very moments and topics where the input of an attorney is key to ensuring that the resulting estate planning documents are appropriate for the client and will accomplish all of the client’s goals, even if the client did not have that particular goal at the outset of the process.

There is much more than document preparation needed in order to provide good estate planning services to a client. The client and the attorney need to be totally engaged in the process which is one of shared information, goals, alternatives and decision-making.