Estate planning is about making sure your family understands 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 your wishes will be followed. Many people aren’t sure what an estate planning attorney is, what they do, or if they need one.
Below, we’ll break down the purpose—and importance—of an estate planning attorney. We’ll also provide tips that help you prepare for the initial meeting with your estate attorney, courtesy of estate planning attorney Brian Zimmet. But first, let’s take a look at what an estate planning attorney is, exactly.
What is an estate planner?
An estate planner (or estate planning attorney) is a licensed attorney who specializes in end-of-life planning. Also known as an estate probate attorney or an estate planner, they can help educate you on the estate planning process and the laws that affect the transfer, disbursement, and taxation of your estate.
What do estate attorneys do?
Estate planning attorneys work with their clients—and, at times, tax professionals and financial advisors—to create a customized estate plan based on individual needs. Depending on your circumstances, your estate planning attorney may assist you with tasks such as:
- Preparing a will or other estate planning documents
- Identifying your beneficiaries
- Establishing limited and/or durable power of attorney (POA)
- Creating advanced healthcare directives and plans for long-term care
- Helping you determine the best type of trust for your needs
- Establishing trusts to protect and transfer assets before and after your death
- Working with your financial advisor to reduce estate tax burdens through effective tax planning
- Identifying ways to avoid the probate process
Do I need an estate attorney?
An estate planning attorney can be an invaluable resource as you work through the estate planning process.
An experienced estate planning attorney can ensure you have a comprehensive, legally binding plan that will eliminate conflict, confusion, and undue emotional stress following your death. Other benefits of working with an estate planning attorney include:
- A plan customized to suit your needs
- Access to legal advice from a specialist who’s familiar with your situation
- Insight on the laws that affect your estate plan
- Confidence that the decisions you make regarding your estate are in line with state and federal laws
- Guidance for your fiduciary, executor, and individuals with power of attorney following your death or incapacitation
Is estate planning only for the rich?
Estate planning isn’t only for the rich. In fact, estate planning is for anyone who has personal belongings and would like them to be distributed in a certain way following their death. It’s also essential for anyone with dependents, such as minor children, loved ones with special needs, or aging parents.
How do I prepare for a meeting with an estate planning attorney?
Prepping for your first estate planning meeting can feel intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Consider the four following steps to prepare for the estate planning process, complete with expert advice.
Step 1: Choose an estate planning attorney
Choosing the right estate planning attorney may be the most difficult but important step of the process. It’s essential to work with an attorney or law firm experienced in estate law, state and federal tax planning, and trust administration. Otherwise, your estate plan could have gaps or oversights.
Ask friends, family, or colleagues for references. You may also ask your employer if they offer a legal plan benefit, which could connect you with a network of experienced estate planning attorneys for a low monthly fee.
Step 2. Get organized
Gather the most relevant documentation to provide a full picture of your assets. Although the list may vary from person to person, Zimmet recommends rounding up the following documents:
|Statements of Assets
|Policies and Declarations
||Accounting of Debt
- Bank account statements
- Investments and brokerage account statements
- Pensions and retirement account documentation
- 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
- Loan documents
- Credit card statement
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.”
The nuances of your situation will guide how your estate planning attorney works with you. While gathering and organizing this paperwork may require some additional effort on your part, the final result will be a completely customized estate plan that provides for your loved ones and protects your assets.
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 3: 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. However, the foundation of your estate plan starts by thinking through these difficult scenarios.
But luckily, you don't have to do it all at once. You can break the conversation up into smaller discussions about things like:
- Who will manage your money
- Who will care for 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
However you decide to talk about your plans, take comfort in knowing that many people are having these discussions, so you're not alone.
Step 4: Prepare Your Questions
You’ve organized your documents and talked with those close to you. Now, there's just one step left: coming up with questions to ask your estate 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.
Get expert guidance on essential end-of-life questions
Whether you’re just beginning the estate planning process or want to revise an existing plan, an estate planning attorney can be an invaluable resource.
You may consider asking friends and colleagues for recommendations. However, you can also ask your employer if they offer legal plan benefits, which can help connect you with a network of experienced attorneys for your legal needs, including estate planning. In doing so, you’ll help take the financial stress out of end-of-life planning—and gain a trustworthy advisor for the rest of your life.