Everyone needs a Last Will and Testament. But what kind of Will do you need? A good one. How do you know when you have a good one? When you are certain it fulfills your goals. And how do you define your goals? By knowing your wishes, understanding your options, and by weighing competing values and considerations; by estate planning, but most of all by starting with the right questions. At Clarity Legal Group we believe estate planning starts with conversation.
Did you know it is possible to have a Will, even a proper Will, but not to have estate planning? A Last Will and Testament is merely a partial expression of a good estate plan. That planning process almost certainly should be built around conversation with an experienced estate planning attorney and that conversation should be built around three broad questions:
- what do I need?
- why do I need it?
- how does it work?
Any decent attorney will answer those questions not by telling you that you need a Will, Trust or Power of Attorney (which you almost certainly do), but rather by asking you some important questions, such as :
- what are your goals and which of them are most important?
- who are the people who are important to you and what are they like?
- what do you own, what is its value and how do you own it?
It’s this conversation — not the legal documents, the tax law, or anything else — that are the essential foundations for estate planning. If you and your estate planning attorney have not discussed these questions, even though you may leave with a will and a trust, you have not had estate planning.
Education and Coaching
You’ve all heard the term “trusted advisor”, but have you every really thought about it? When it comes to your estate planning process, a trusted advisor is essential. Let’s break those two words down.
I went to a highly regarded law school and studied all of the things you would study to become an estate planning attorney. I took multiple courses in tax law, Wills and Trusts, real property, commercial property, and even an advanced estate planning seminar. Upon graduation I took the bar exam, again being tested on many of these subjects.
I passed the bar exam! I received a law license. I was legally qualified to be your estate planning attorney, but despite my training and proof of some knowledge, I was unprepared — even unqualified — to be your estate planning attorney. Why? Partly because I had no practical experience with how estates worked. But also because as a law student I was not trained to be an educator or coach or to find what motivates clients. I knew the law, but did not fully understand the way it worked and I was not fully prepared to be your advisor, educator, or coach.
Thirty years of experience later, having worked with experienced estate planning attorneys and having administered many estates, I have that experience and understanding. This gets to the heart of why you need a “trusted advisor”.
If I didn’t understand all of the subtleties of how estate planning works as a freshly licensed attorney, you will not fully understand them even after talking with me or another lawyer or after reading a few articles on the subject. I encourage you to study the subject, but no matter how much you do, you will not understand all of the implications or issues. This means that you need to trust the attorney who helps you with your estate planning to make sure that he or she has considered all the issues so that your plan works the way you want it to.
Second, because you, and not your lawyer, are the expert on the crucial issues of what you want, your goals, what is most important or worrisome to you, and even the basics of what you own and how you own it, your lawyer must be skilled at conversation and coaching you — educating you — to appreciate the issues and understand what information might be important to your estate plan. Your estate planning lawyer must be a skilled educator and advisor.
The Conversation needs to be Continuing
When I started doing estate planning I was shocked how many people — including lawyers — treated planning as transactional. You don’t just need to get a Will, you need to be in conversation with an experienced and skilled attorney who can educate you about the way things work so that you can make good decisions about what you want, A skilled attorney can help you define your goals and help you plan to meet your goals. That’s never going to work if you or the lawyer sees this as the transactional exchange of a commodity.
I get questions that sound like a transactional exchange of a commodity all the time. What do you charge for a Will? Any one who can answer that question at the beginning of the first conversation with a new client is probably not providing estate planning as I’ve defined it here. As it turns out, drafting the Will is the easy part. Understanding what it needs to say is where the rubber hits the road.
This need for education and consultation doesn’t end when you sign the legal documents. Your legal documents need to work well when they need to be used. Factors that are not controlled by your legal documents can affect how your estate plan works. When these things change, they can impact your planning.
At Clarity Legal Group we strive to make sure that our clients always understand what their plan is, why they have it, and how it works. That takes consistent continued education and conversation. We provide an annual client presentation that reviews changes in the law, updates in planning strategies, and refreshers on how plans work. We offer an annual fiduciary school that our clients and their family and friends named as Executors, Trustees, Powers of Attorney or Health Care decision makers in their plans can attend, to review how these documents work and to prepare those people to understand their roles. We also encourage our clients to meet with us regularly to discuss their plan and consider whether it still works.
The questions I’ve emphasized here are the right place to begin a conversation about your estate planning whether you are planning for the first time, or considering the update of an existing plan. As always, it’s about getting it right.
Contact our Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area Estate Planning Lawyers
If you have additional questions or concerns estate planning please contact the Durham Chapel Hill are estate planning lawyers at Clarity Legal Group by calling us at 919-484-0012 or contact us online.