If you’re like me and many others, you might think that estate planning is only for the retired and the wealthy. Estate planning conjures up images of the Kennedy compound in Hyannis. You might say “What in the world does estate planning have to do with me? I don’t have an estate.”
Guess what? You do have an estate – nearly everyone does. Your estate is basically everything you own: bank accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance, personal possessions, real estate. Your estate is all your stuff. And if you own a house (or as George Carlin would say, a cover for your stuff), that’s part of your estate too.
I never thought I would go into estate planning, as I wanted to help people ground down or ignored by the system. In law school, classes seemed to focus on tax avoidance strategies for the ultra-rich, people who already had armies of lawyers jousting for their favor. I have since learned from life experience that everyone needs a plan to help protect their loved ones from protracted court battles in the event of their incapacity or death.
I was first drawn into estate planning by my own family’s needs. My family asked me to develop a structure to allow current and future generations to keep sharing my great-grandparents’ summer cabin. After the previous generation had spent decades of disagreement involving various lawyers, my mother and aunt were diagnosed with a fatal genetic disease. I dove into creating a consensus among 35 family members on a way to preserve our special summer sanctuary. It became apparent that estate planning was important for everyone, even us.
Soon afterwards, even though my mother and my brother both knew that they had this fatal disease, neither one had an estate or incapacity plan in place when they passed away. My brother’s death is why I added estate planning to my practice. My brother tried to scramble to put a plan in place before he died, but he didn’t have time. He died far too soon (in many ways). He always meant to have a plan in place, but no time seemed right.
Through these experiences, I learned first-hand what happens without an estate plan – as over a year-and-a-half later we are still in probate court with my mother’s estate. And that’s with all family members on the same page!
But through these hardships, I have also learned how essential thoughtful incapacity planning is. A medical directive that makes your wishes known can be an incredible gift for your loved ones. Before my brother agreed to be put into an induced coma for machine respiration, he set a timeframe for its end. By doing that, he relieved his wife of the tremendous burden of having to make that decision.
After being faced with these tough family issues, I threw myself into learning about incapacity planning, trusts, and estates in order to help other people avoid these problems.
Like many people, you may want to decide what happens when something happens to you. Even if you don’t particularly care what happens to your stuff, you may want to save your family from conflict and having to go to court over this stuff. That’s the essence of estate planning.
What is Estate Planning?
Good estate planning is not just about who gets your stuff, but should also:
- Include instructions for your care and name a guardian if you become disabled.
- Ensure you can have a trusted family member or friend manage your affairs and pay your bills if you become disabled.
- Name guardians for your minor children, and provide for a local temporary guardian if the long-term guardians are out of the area.
- Provide for any special needs and supplemental income for family members without jeopardizing government benefits.
- Minimize taxes, court costs, and unnecessary legal fees.
- Ensure that your loved ones are not harmed by lump-sum inheritance if they may need help with learning to manage money responsibly, or might need protection from creditors or divorce.
- Include instructions for passing on your values, not just your valuables.
Do you know what would happen legally- to you, your loved ones, your money and everything else you care about – if something unexpected happened to you? If you don’t have a plan, the State of Florida has one for you but you may not like it. And if you do have an estate plan and it’s out of date, it may not do what you thought it would.
If you don’t know exactly what would happen for everyone you love and everything you own, then the first step is to find out exactly what would happen, legally and financially, so that you can decide if the current state of your affairs is okay with you.
How Do We Help You With Estate Planning?
We conduct a planning session, where we spend time together and you’ll get informed. Before our session, we will ask you to complete a questionnaire, which will help you to get clear about what you own and how you want to plan for the well-being and care of your loved ones and your stuff. If you decide the current state of affairs is unacceptable, and if we both decide that it’s a fit to work together, then we can design an estate plan together that will best suit the needs of your family.
Unlike many estate planning attorneys and law firms, we always work on a flat fee. That way you can be comfortable calling your lawyer with questions – and we can be sure that you are receiving the help you need.
The foundation of your estate plan will often include a revocable living trust; you transfer your property into this trust for your benefit during your life. One of the benefits of a revocable living trust is that, when done correctly and maintained over time, your estate plan should help your family to avoid the cost and delay of probate. If you have a larger estate that might be subject to the federal government’s 40% estate tax, we can help you with that too. If like most people, you have questions about how best to pass on your retirement accounts, we can help.