Ask ten people on the street what the first step to building an estate plan is and I’ll bet my pinky finger that the majority will tell you to talk to a lawyer (or to ask Google) and the rest will hastily shuffle away, thinking you’re trying to sell them something. All of them, of course, would be wrong. Estate Planning is truly much easier than most people imagine. It’s the misconceptions that keep so many people from starting their estate plan and why there is an alarmingly low percentage of US adults that have their affairs in order. A recent study shows that the number of adults who have a will or any other type of estate planning document has decreased by nearly 25% since 2017. One major reason is that many believe it is harder to get started than it really is.
Meeting with an attorney is not the first step to estate planning and understanding the range of documents that comprise a complete plan is none of your worry. The process begins by simply arranging a meeting with your loved ones. Upon the basis of clearly articulated wishes and collaboratively designed goals, the rest of the process falls easily into place.
Getting an Estate Plan Off the Ground
- Define your priorities. Before sitting the kids down and opening the conversation up to outside input, take time to think about what you want to come of your life’s work. All too often folks rest on unexamined assumptions about how assets should be passed on.
- Determine how you’d like to distribute your estate. Those with children, for instance, frequently take for granted that their wealth should be equally distributed when careful consideration of personal priorities might lead to a different conclusion.
- When addressing children, ask first about their goals and aspirations before discussing how you plan to divide your assets. Remember that fair does not always mean equal. If, for instance, a family business figures in your plan, it is perfectly defensible to leave a majority share to that child who has shown the greatest interest and ability. Although this decision may be difficult, experience shows that taking goals and skills into consideration greatly reduces the likelihood of future family conflict.
- While on the subject of children, why not take things a step further and challenge the assumption that everything should be left in their hands. After all, you don’t owe anybody anything—except, maybe, the bank—and in all likelihood, your lifetime’s assets could do more than simply strengthen your kids’ bank accounts. Perhaps a charitable foundation that children might take a role in leading is more in line with your values. Perhaps a beloved institution is in greater need of support. Whatever your choice, what matters most is that you break with the prescribed thinking in making it.
- Only once you’ve done the hardest work of carefully and creatively reflecting on your goals is time to reach out to a lawyer. While a good estate planning attorney will make the rest of the process as painless as possible, the work doesn’t end there. Should complications be avoided, and goals be met, you’ll need to loop all advisors, including financial planners and insurance agents, into the process. Only when everyone involved understands their roles are desired outcomes achieved.
- The final misconception to be avoided is assuming that the task ends when a solid plan has been put in place. After all, estate plans are evolving documents that grow alongside your family and your assets. When such changes as marriage, divorce, or the arrival of grandchildren manifest, your plan requires an update; likewise, when unexpected events such as a global pandemic rewrite economic outlooks, it is important to consider revisions.
What it comes down to is estate planning is not the insurmountable task it is often imagined to be. While many folks shudder at the thought of endless document review, the reality is that only lawyers need to worry about this aspect. Your job is simply to arrive at the table with clear objectives and an open mind. Rather than a grating experience, building an estate plan is an opportunity for reflection that, when well-done, brings a family closer and ensures harmony even after you’re gone. All you need to get started is a pen, paper, and an experienced attorney willing to help when the time comes.
Contact Attorney James M. Miskell