Estate planning is all about making sure your family is clear about how you want your assets and affairs to be managed in the event of your death or incapacitation. But starting the process can often seem overwhelming.
That’s where estate-planning attorneys come in. These professionals guide you through the ins and outs to help make sure you feel secure that your wishes will be followed. We spoke to estate-planning attorney, Brian Zimmet, about how to prepare for your initial meeting with an attorney as well as vital questions to ask. Read on for his inside tips.
Step 1: Get organized
To no surprise, the first thing you'll want to do is gather the most relevant documentation to provide a full picture of your assets. Although the list may vary from person to person, here's what Zimmet says you'll probably need. We broke it down into three categories (so it feels a little more digestible):
Statements of assets:
- Bank account statements
- Investments and brokerage account statements
- Pensions and retirement account documentation
Policies and declarations:
- Life insurance policies
- Real estate and timeshare deeds
- Automobile and watercraft titles
- Beneficiary designations
- Guardianship designations
- Divorce decree(s)
- Pre- or Post-nuptial agreement(s) or palimony agreement
- Birth and adoption certificates
- Business ownership and partnership interest documents
- Intellectual property, trademark, patent, and copyright documents
Accounting of debt:
- Loan documents
- Credit card statements
Corralling all this paperwork might take some time, but it could lead your attorney to an important discovery. "Say you have this wonderful estate, and then you find out you don't really own an asset, or you only own 50 percent of an asset," Zimmet explains. "Maybe your divorce decree was never signed, or maybe there's a prenuptial agreement that you need to override for purposes of your estate," he says. The nuances of your situation will guide how your estate-planning attorney works with you.
Tip: Create digital copies of everything, if possible. Download digital files to the cloud, and scan hard copies, so if anything goes missing, you have a backup at your fingertips.
Step 2: Talk to your family about your wishes
Having conversations with the people you love about your own passing can feel uncomfortable—it's a serious topic and there's a lot to discuss. But you don't have to do it all at once. You can break it up into smaller chats about things like: who will manage your money; who will be designated guardian of your children; who will act as your executor (the person who carries out your requests); who will make critical healthcare decisions if you're unable to. The foundation of your estate plan starts by thinking through these difficult scenarios.
“There are points in life where an estate plan is going to be necessary,” Zimmet says. "For somebody who was recently married—that's a big mark for preparing a will. Having a kid is another, because you'll need to name a guardian for that child in the event something happens to you."
However you decide to talk about it, take comfort in knowing that many people are having these discussions, so you're not alone.
Step 3: Prepare Your Questions
You’ve organized your documents and talked with those close to you—there's just one step left: coming up with questions to ask your estate planning attorney. Zimmet says to include these six:
- What assets should be part of my estate?
- What are the tax implications of my preferred estate plan—and how can I minimize my tax burden?
- How do you ensure my will is carried out correctly?
- How long does the estate-planning process take to complete?
- Where should my documents be stored?
- How do you handle updating my estate plan, and do you conduct periodic reviews?
Zimmet notes that your estate-planning attorney should welcome your questions, provide answers that you understand fully (not speak in legalese you can't translate), and make you feel comfortable. If you feel otherwise, think about looking for another attorney.
Ask your employer if they offer a legal plan workplace benefit, which can help connect you with a network of experienced attorneys for your legal needs, including estate planning at a very affordable cost.