Preparing to Put an Estate Plan Together
In most cases, you will engage a lawyer to formalize your estate plan. Although you will invest some of your hard-earned cash to get your estate plan formed properly, it is well worth having a professional guide you. As with most services, you can shop around to find an attorney or other professional who matches your goals and resources. The more material assets you have, and the more extensive your network of responsibilities, the more pressing the need for the best resources and appropriate attorney.
If your assets and commitments are fairly straightforward, then the do-it-yourself approach may be the way to go. You can find numerous books, government publications, and software to assist you. But as you acquire more, in terms of both “stuff” and people who rely upon you for their well-being, you will need correspondingly sophisticated guidance in creating your estate plan.
Choosing a Lawyer
Lawyers have only their time to sell, and most do not come cheaply. To make the most of your time together, be prepared at your first meeting with any and all necessary documents. Call ahead and inquire what the attorney will want to review with you. At the meeting, ask all the questions you need to be sure you have found a compatible professional. But don't waste time on inessentials — remember, the clock is ticking! Often lawyers have a flat fee arrangement for doing certain types of work, so ask.
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What would the lawyer like to see in order to evaluate your situation?
What percent of her practice is in the area of expertise that you need?
How many similar matters has she handled?
What problems does the lawyer foresee with your situation?
How would the lawyer go about handling your situation?
How long will it take to bring the matter to a conclusion?
How will the lawyer charge for her services? Hourly or flat fee?
Would the lawyer handle the case personally or would it be passed on to some other lawyer in the firm?
If other lawyers or staff may do some of the work, can you meet them first?
When you begin the process of working with an estate planning attorney, it will be important to clarify whether you are representing your own interests or those of someone else. It may be, for instance, that you are there on behalf of a parent who cannot represent herself. In order for the lawyer to proceed, you will be required to furnish proof that you can speak on behalf of your parent. That proof can be in the form of a document such as a durable power of attorney. The lawyer will want to know the particulars of what you seek in the meeting, regardless of whether you are there for yourself or someone else.
To begin with, you will need to introduce yourself and your situation with basics such as your name, address, marital status, and names of your family members, including children and grandchildren. Be prepared to bring financial information, including:
Bank accounts with balances, account numbers, locations
Safe-deposit box locations
Pension and retirement account records
IRAs, Keoghs, profit-sharing plans, stock options, government benefits
Itemized list of individual stocks, bonds, mutual funds, certificates of deposit
If you have any outstanding debts, the attorney will need to know the amounts, to whom they are owed, and when balances are scheduled to be repaid. This is the time to disclose any specific plans you have for bequests, such as your baseball card collection that is to go to your nephew Timmy. It is also the time to identify the people you have in mind to serve as executors and trustees of your estate, and those you want to perform the role of guardian for your child.
It can be a tremendous honor, or a huge imposition, to ask someone to take on the responsibility of settling your estate, or raising your children (even with a big financial cushion). Communicate with the individuals you have in mind to be certain they are willing to accept the duties.
Any legal documents you already have in place will be helpful for the estate planning process. These might include:
Current will and codicils to the will
Copy of any previous wills
Prenuptial or postnuptial agreements; divorce decrees
Community property agreements
Copies of deeds
Copies of life insurance policies
Copies of applications for social security benefits or Medicaid
Copies of prior gift tax returns, if any
Income tax returns for the prior three to five years
It is a good idea to have copies of any legal documents you bring along organized in a logical fashion for easy reference. In addition to all of the financial and legal papers listed, you may want to prepare an itemized list of valuables including family heirlooms and sentimental items that you expect to designate specifically for individual heirs.