Resolved to Get Your Estate Plan Done This Year? Questions to Consider Before Putting Pen to Paper
My wife often tells me that my career as an estate planning and elder law attorney is similar to that of an auto mechanic. Like an auto mechanic, customers know they need to see me about something important—it is just that this important something is not on the top of their list of things they want to be doing at any point in time. I do not blame them. In the case of the auto mechanic, we all know we need to make sure our brakes work, and, in most cases, we only go in to have our brakes checked when they start to squeak. That squeaking mechanism is built-in by design as a safety feature so you do not pull out of your driveway one morning with no brakes.
Unfortunately, other aspects of our life do not always begin to “squeak” when something needs attending to, and so it may be difficult to set aside time to give your life planning some meaningful attention. Whatever your catalyst may be—a new year, a birth or death in the family, even reading this article—I hope it spurs even one step of forward action.
Many folks think about estate planning with an idea that “I need a will or trust and I will be all set.” Instead of thinking about estate planning as choosing documents off a menu list, consider first what value you want those documents to provide. In conversations with my clients, we spend a good deal of time digging into the reasons they came to see me in the first place. What prompted them to decide at that time that they needed to put together estate planning documents? Remember, I am like the auto mechanic. People come to see me when they feel something needs addressing. Peeling back those reasons and feelings allows a client to make good decisions about what documents to have in place for their specific circumstances. While every individual and family present unique goals, hopes, and concerns, here are some common questions that should be reflected upon:
1. How long do I believe I (or my spouse and I) can live independently?
All of us will need help at some point no matter how hard we resist. Ideally this transition is gradual and smooth with a trusted individual who is informed of circumstances before their assistance is needed. During typical holiday seasons our office sees an uptick in calls with family members who have recently visited loved ones only to realize that since the last holidays their independence has become severely diminished and their quality of life has significantly deteriorated.
2. Who would I want to help me if I am no longer able to live independently? This is a two-pronged question. First, who do I trust to act in my best interest? Second, is that person available? Consider that individuals we name in our estate planning documents have lives of their own, so care should be given to how efficient you can make this process for them. This efficiency reduces the likelihood of caregiver/fiduciary burnout and trickles down as a benefit to the quality of your care.
3. Do I know what assets I own and how do they help me maintain my quality of life today as well as in the future? Can you list the assets and income sources you and your spouse own? Can your income sources support both of you if one spouse needs long-term care or your monthly expenses increase significantly? If not, how quickly will your assets have to be spent down to cover your monthly expenses? The AARP’s website has some useful calculators to run scenarios and stress test your assets and income against a long-term care scenario. It is worth taking a few minutes to understand where you currently stand.
4. Is it important to me that my assets are preserved to provide meaningful benefits for someone close to me? We receive great joy in seeing the fruits of our labors and with accomplishment comes the privilege to decide how and when we can make a meaningful impact on others. These plans may include making a gift during our lifetime or leaving something in our wills or trusts to pay for a grandchild’s education.
5. Do I truly understand the risks of how I can lose these assets?
If you were in a car accident and the damages exceeded your insurance limits, do you know which of your assets could be taken and which ones would be protected? How would a sudden loss of an asset or income stream impact your life today and your future plans? It is important to visit with your CPA, financial advisor, or attorney to understand what protective steps you might take. Many times, these steps are inexpensive and simple relative to the protection they provide.
As these questions and others are carefully considered, priorities of the individual and family become more clear and a strategy the client can feel confident about is put into place. With the abundance of information on the internet, it may be easy to identify the features of a will, trust, and power of attorney, but crafting these documents to fit specific wishes and goals takes a concerted effort. A simple conversation with a family member or trusted advisor can get the ball rolling.
About the Author
Steven C. Holman is an Estate Planning and Elder Law Attorney and DAPS Board Member. In addition to his law practice, Steven is a legal service provider for the Dallas Area Agency on Aging. He is licensed to practice law in both California and Texas. He writes often on Estate Planning and Elder Law topics and was most recently featured in The Dallas Morning News.