What “simple estate planning” really means
Most people, when you ask them, want their estate planning to be one thing: simple. Seasoned lawyers will tell you that “simple” really means “cheap.” Don’t bother with people who worry about your fee is their advice. But that advice is, in part, why so many people don’t have an estate plan.
When people want their estate planning to be simple, they are talking about what they don’t want. They don’t want it to be complicated. They don’t want it to be a lot of work. They don’t want it to take forever to get done. They don’t want it to be expensive, yes. And they don’t want it to be something they can’t understand.
Those are the defining features of an estate plan that is simple. It is:
Unfortunately, traditional estate planning is not any of these things. Traditional estate planning results in high-quality documents, but the process to get them is often difficult, lengthy, expensive, and confusing. Nothing about it is simple. I’d like to change that.
Estate planning can be difficult in many different ways:
- It’s hard to get started.
- It’s hard to find a lawyer you trust and can afford.
- It’s hard to gather all the financial and legal information the lawyer asks for.
- It’s hard to take time off work to meet in a lawyer’s office several times.
- It’s hard and intimidating to work with a lawyer in the first place.
- It’s hard to understand everything the lawyer says and take in all the information at once.
- It’s hard to make so many important decisions, all in one or two meetings.
- It’s hard to think so much about your own death or disability (I think this difficulty is overblown, but it is a difficulty for some people).
- It’s hard to understand your legal documents without the lawyer explaining them to you.
In short, it tends to be hard to work with a lawyer. Attorneys aren’t known for making things easy, after all—and they definitely haven’t made them easy in the realm of estate planning.
To make estate planning easier, we have to rethink the process. It has to be clear how to get started and easy to take the first step. It shouldn’t leave clients to constantly worry about how much it will cost or if they’ve found a good lawyer. The lawyer shouldn’t ask for more information than is necessary or make the client feel intimidated. There should be options for meeting by video and after business hours, and meetings should be kept to a minimum. Rather, clients should be able to learn and make decisions at their own pace—whether that pace is quick or slow.
The typical first-time estate planner knows only that he or she needs a will to name an executor and divide the property. But even the simplest estate plan should include multiple legal documents, each with at least a handful of important decisions to make. So traditional estate planning almost always takes 6-8 weeks—sometimes longer. That’s an unexpected commitment to many first-time clients.
It took you a long time to finally decide to get your estate planning done. Now you’re ready to cross this off your to-do list, and the first thing your lawyer tells you is … not so fast?
I’m as guilty of this as any lawyer. It’s because I want my clients to have all the information they need to make good, informed decisions. I want my clients to know their options, and in estate planning there are many options. Few clients realize at the beginning how many options they’ll have and how many decisions they’ll need to make. I don’t want those decisions to be made hastily.
But there has to be a better, more streamlined way to do estate planning. It’s not necessarily about getting the documents executed in as little time as possible, but about removing barriers to clients getting to the finish line at their own pace, whatever that is. Some clients don’t need or want to learn all about a will and what they can do with one; they just want to have one that meets their needs, and they’re comfortable making decisions quickly. Other clients need to ask lots of questions and take time to discuss it all with their family. Both types should have a lawyer who adjusts to their needs, not vice versa.
Seasoned lawyers will tell you that “simple” really means “cheap.” Don’t bother with people who worry about your fee is their advice. But that advice is, in part, why so many people don’t have an estate plan.
Any normal person is going to be worried about cost as they walk into a lawyer’s office. And with good reason, when many lawyers still bill by the hour and charge for phone calls and postage. Normal people—who have to worry about whether a thing will cost them $50 or $500 or $5,000—need good estate planning too. They just need that good estate planning to be simple. And, yes, that does mean it should cost less.
Traditional estate planning is expensive because it involves a lawyer doing all the work with each client one-on-one, and because lawyers tend to make things complex. Like I said, there are many options when designing an estate plan, and that lawyer is trying to think through all of them, and his time is expensive. This sort of service is good if you need a complex estate plan. If what you need is something simple, however, it’s not necessary. A simple estate plan can be designed to meet most people’s needs with a few standard options plus customization as needed, rather than trying to consider every option. That cuts down on the lawyer-work required and helps streamline the process as well.
One side of affordable estate planning is making the process itself less work; the other side is making it easy to pay for. This is why I always use flat fees in my practice. I don’t want my clients to wonder how high the bill will climb, worry about how long a meeting is taking, or hesitate to make a phone call. So I don’t bill for my time; I bill for the good advice and legal documents my clients receive. That way, I can tell them up front exactly how much it will cost.
How much that is will be less, too, if the process is easy and streamlined. It all works together. The more we make estate planning easy and streamlined, the more affordable and accessible it can be. We might even be able to make it more affordable than ever if we can change the fundamental process away from being 100% one-on-one with a lawyer towards being 80% in a group and DIY plus 20% one-on-one with a lawyer.
Finally, a simple estate plan should be something anyone can understand. Traditional estate planning documents are long and confusing. They use legal jargon and talk in legalese. They’re organized to make sense to lawyers, not normal people. They use long paragraphs where headings and lists would be much easier to read. They use several words where one will do better (as in “give, devise, and bequeath”). In short, they are things that require a lawyer to read and understand.
I think most lawyers resist making legal documents simpler for a number of reasons. There’s something impressive about a lengthy legal document. That thick estate planning binder represents the work the lawyer did for you. If your legal documents were only a few pages and could fit in a small folder, wouldn’t that mean they’re inferior?
The truth is that, as in any kind of writing, making a legal document simple is more work. It’s easy to be verbose, to throw in every legal provision under the sun because why not. But it doesn’t make the document better. It makes the document worse, in fact, because it takes more time to cut through all the cruft and figure out what really matters. And there’s no reason why legal documents can’t be written in plain English. Some legal terms will be used, of course. But a simple estate planning document can and should be understandable by anyone.
I think estate planning can and should be all these things. That’s my current work: to make estate planning simple. I’ve still got a lot work to do to accomplish that. If you’d like to follow my work and see how I’m trying to improve, sign up for my professional newsletter below.