One question that many potential clients ask is “how does this process work? If I hire you, then what happens?” Well, the specifics will vary depending on what you hire me to do, but here is how things typically go when a client hires me to help them draft an estate plan.
First you contact me, either through my website, by email, or with a phone call and voicemail. Let me know what is the best way to contact you back, and what you’re contacting me about. My goal is to respond to you within one business day, and faster whenever possible. My default is email much of the time, but I am happy to call you if you prefer - just let me know when would be a good time. I like to make and receive phone calls by appointment, when possible, so that I can give you my full undivided attention, and you can do the same. Grocery stores and other public locations just aren’t ideal for lawyers and their clients to have important conversations.
At this point you can ask any questions you have, and tell me a little bit about your situation and what you are looking for. I will ask you some questions, and we will plan the next steps.
Once you make the decision to hire me, I will send you my engagement agreement. This agreement sets out the terms of our arrangement so that we are both on the same page, spelling out what services you are hiring me to provide, and how I will bill for those services. It lays out my obligations as well as what I need from you in order to accurately draft your documents. If you agree with the terms of the agreement, you (and your spouse or partner, if both of you would like me to represent you) will sign the agreement and so will I.
Then I will send you my estate planning questionnaire. The questionnaire contains several questions, including questions about personal and family information, financial information, and questions about how you want to be treated if you become ill, and how you want to dispose of your property. I find that this questionnaire is a good way to organize this information, so that you can take the time you need to think through the answers, and I have them all in one place.
If you and your spouse or partner are hiring me together, each of you will need to complete a questionnaire. Most estate planning documents are one per individual. In other words, each person gets their own will, they do not share one.
Deciding How to Proceed
Once you have provided me with your completed questionnaire and asked any questions you have, I will review your questionnaire and will likely have a few more questions for you. Based on your personal and financial situation, as well as your goals and priorities, I will provide you with some options and advice on the types of documents that are available to help you meet your goals, protect your loved ones, and plan for your assets. Once we have determined how to meet these goals, I will begin drafting your documents.
Drafting Your Documents
There are several types of estate planning documents. The specifics will vary based on your personal and financial situation as well as your goals and priorities, but most people should have at least a will, advance health care directive, and power of attorney. You can read more about these documents in other blog posts here on www.catherinelaw.net/blog, but here are the basics.
- A will allows you to specify whom you want to inherit your property; whom you want to serve as guardian of your minor children, if you have any; whom you want to serve as executor of your estate; and any burial or funeral wishes. In some cases a will can also establish a trust to take effect after your death.
- An advance health care directive allows you to specify how you would like to be cared for if you become too ill to make your own decisions, and whom you would like to speak on your behalf. The advance health care directive serves two very important functions: it allows you to specify how you want to be cared for, increasing your own comfort; and it allows the person who will be caring for you to know more about what you want, so that they can worry and stress less about whether or not they are doing things the way you would want them to. Estate planning is as much about making the process easier for your loved ones as it is about allowing you to specify your wishes.
- A power of attorney for property allows you to appoint someone to manage your property if you become too ill to do so. This can mean anything from paying your mortgage and buying groceries for your family while you are in the hospital short-term, to managing all of your finances if you fall into a coma, struggle with dementia, or otherwise become unable to manage your finances long-term. Creating a power of attorney can prevent the need for expensive and invasive court proceedings, and can make it much easier for your loved ones to continue living in your home while you are ill.
- A trust can provide for the management and distribution of your assets both during your life and after your death. It serves some of the same functions as a will, but may provide additional benefits for some people. As with many things there are advantages and disadvantages, and if a trust looks like it might be beneficial we will discuss your options and whether a trust is a good fit for you.
Once I have drafted your documents I will check with you to make sure that they accurately portray your wishes. We will also schedule a meeting to finalize your documents.
Finalizing Your Documents
Once your documents are complete, they need to be executed. Different types of documents have different legal requirements that must be met in order for the document to become legally binding. Without this final step, your documents aren’t much use. If possible, I like to complete this step in person to minimize the opportunity for problems. At this meeting you will sign your documents, and I will notarize those that need notarizing. Some documents will also require witness signatures. By the end of our meeting, your documents will be binding and effective. (But don’t worry, with very few exceptions you can change things if and when your documents no longer accurately portray your wishes.)
If it is not practical for us to execute your documents in person, I will provide you with instructions on how to execute them.
The (Semi-)Final Steps
Once your documents are complete and fully executed, there are a few more steps to take in order to make your estate plan fully effective. Exactly what steps you need to take will depend on your documents, but most people will need to verify that life insurance policies, brokerage accounts, and other similar accounts have the correct beneficiaries specified with the company or firm. If you have created an advance health care directive you need to talk to the person(s) you have nominated as your agent to make sure that they understand your wishes and are willing to fill this role. If you have created a power of attorney for property you need to talk to your agent to make sure that they are willing to fill this role. You should also let at least one person you trust know where to find your documents, and make at least one copy of your documents to keep in a safe place. If you have created a trust, certain assets will need to be transferred into the trust.
I will provide detailed information to help you complete each of these steps.
At this point your estate plan is done. However, I do not recommend letting them sit on a shelf collecting dust for the rest of your life. As your personal and financial situation changes, you should review your documents to make sure they still represent your wishes and your situation. If your assets change signficantly, in value or in type, your current plan may no longer make sense. If you get married, divorced, or have children, your documents should be updated. Further, the law changes continuously. Some changes may not affect you at all; others may have drastic consequences, including tax results. It is always a good idea to have a lawyer review your documents periodically. Some changes may require drafting new documents, but often a short amendment will be sufficient.
How Long Does the Whole Process Take?
The time it takes from start to finish depends on several factors, many of which you control. Your documents are completely tailored to you and your circumstances, which means that I can’t move forward until I have a lot of information from you. I do my best to ask as many questions as possible at the beginning of the process, but there are always some questions that come up as I put your documents together. If you are able to get back to me with information quickly, I can finish your documents quickly. However, most people have a lot going on, so I understand that it’s not always possible to respond immediately to my questions. Further, a lot of my questions during this process may not be easy to answer - most people find the estate planning process challenging, because it forces them to think about unpleasant scenarios. I try to make the process easier whenever possible, and it is my goal that when your documents are complete you will feel as though a weight has been lifted and you will have one less big thing to worry about, one less uncertainty in your life. Even though it may not be a fun process, the fact that you’re reading this and thinking about creating an estate plan tells me that it’s been on your mind, and you will feel better when it’s done.
If you are in a hurry to complete your documents for any reason, please let me know and I will do what I can to speed up the process. However, there are some parts of the process that really shouldn’t be rushed, since you will be making some important decisions. If at all possible, create an estate plan early, before you need it. Waiting will not make the process easier, but it may make it a whole lot more difficult.