Is estate planning a lot of work?

“It feels like so much work so I’m dragging my feet.” It’s a very common feeling when it comes to getting started on estate planning. In my last newsletter, I wrote about a young couple who was also worried about how much work it would be to get their estate planning done.

On the one hand, a will seems simple enough. You already know who you would want to get your property, so, um, just write that up and let’s be done with it, thank you very much. But once you start learning about estate planning, you quickly realize that a will should name a person to manage your estate, and perhaps a guardian for your young children, and maybe a trust if you don’t want them to get everything at age 18, and also a will only covers non-probate property (whatever that means), and oh you’ll need to name people to serve as backups as well, and by the way you should really have a power of attorney for finances and a power of attorney for health care too, at the least, each with more decisions to make.

In my experience, most people walk into a consultation with only one or two questions about estate planning. My answers beget a couple more questions. My answers to those questions beget even more questions. And so on. Usually by the end we’ve come full circle and the clients or potential clients walk out with a lot to think over. (Now I’m working on answering the most common questions before the consultation even starts.)

The point is that even simple estate planning is more work than it might seem at first. After all, you don’t want it to be too simple (that’s what I call “basic”); you want it to be as simple as it can be while accomplishing your goals and helping your family. A big part of the value I provide is identifying for each client this line between too basic and too complicated. I can tell you exactly how simple your estate plan can be without hurting you or your family—or, put another way, I can tell you exactly how complicated your estate plan needs to be to accomplish your goals.

It’s my mission to make estate planning short, simple, human, and correct. I’m constantly working on making this process shorter and simpler for my clients. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I’ve made progress by focusing on a few things that make estate planning more work than it needs to be:

  • Long intake forms. Lawyers like lots of detailed information—especially estate planning lawyers, and I’m no different. We’re trained to analyze facts and find legal issues. The more facts we have, the more potential issues we can address. So you can understand why an intake form for a wills and trusts lawyer would stretch on for a good many pages of densely-packed questions. But gathering all this information can be a big barrier for clients, who will have to hunt for it in online accounts with long-forgotten passwords, or file cabinets stuffed with unorganized papers, or by making phone calls after hours. That’s why I try to keep my intake form as short as possible (the paper form I use is just over two and a half pages, though I’m moving to an online form now). Do you really need to give me your social security number? Do you really need to list account numbers for every financial asset? My approach is to ask only for the essential information up front and ask for more if and when it’s needed.

  • Multiple in-person meetings. Nobody thinks going to a lawyer’s office is a walk in the park. (Mine is more of a plain conference room than the stereotypical lawyer’s office, but still.) Especially if you (and perhaps your spouse) work normal hours, taking time off to sit in an office for an hour or two is not convenient. The more you have to do this, the more work estate planning becomes. I’ve found that, for many clients, meeting in person at least once is important to establish trust. Beyond that, though, the fewer the better. Ideally, you’d have one meeting at the start and a short meeting at the end to properly execute everything (too bad Wisconsin law doesn’t allow for electronically signing your will, yet). That’s how it worked out with the clients I wrote about last week. I’m working on making that a more common occurrence.

  • Making lots of decision all at once. I used to work at a firm where we had a meeting with every client just to make all kinds of estate planning decisions. They were expected to make all the decisions right then and there (with our guidance). We didn’t give them a guide to explain the basics or give them time to let it simmer in the back of their minds. And there were a lot of decisions: we gave our clients options to create sub-trusts, grant powers of appointment, limit trustee powers, name a trust protector, and so on, and so on. The thing is, estate planning gives your words legal power, and your words can be almost whatever you want. The number of decisions you could make is immense. I’ve come to believe it’s my job as the lawyer to guide you to the really important decisions, give you what you need to make them well, and protect you from overwhelm and decision fatigue. I’ll admit that’s an art, and I’m still a novice at it. But I’m working on it. That’s why I’m starting to send clients my Quick Start on Simple Estate Planning guide first thing, so they can already be thinking about the biggest decisions ahead of time, at their own pace. I’m also paring down the initial questions I ask of estate planning clients.

  • Trusts and asset protection. Nothing complicates an estate plan and makes more work like a trust. Especially an asset protection trust. Everyone gets what a will is. A trust, on the other hand, is less straightforward. It’s also yet another legal document with its own set of decisions to make. Sometimes it’s worth the complication. A typical revocable living trust that I draft (not an asset protection trust) does make my client’s estate plan a bit more complicated, adds expense, and adds work; but it makes their family’s job later in estate administration simpler, less expensive, and easier. It’s a worthwhile tradeoff for some clients, and I keep that trust as simple as I can. But very few of my clients need a trust; a simpler estate plan of a will and powers of attorney can accomplish what most people truly need.

How much work does it have to be?

What if we edited out all the things that make estate planning more work? What if we pared it down to its essence, the bare minimum required to put together a good, simple estate plan? What would that look like?

The information I’d need:

  • The full names and ages of you, your spouse (if married), and all your children (if you have them);

  • The full names of your parents, siblings, and any other members of your extended family who might be involved in your estate plan, and their relationship to you;

  • Your contact info; and

  • A list of each asset or account you own, how you own it (jointly, individually, etc.), and its rough value.

  • Then, in the consultation, I’d need to ask about your relationships and the health of family members to identify potential issues.

The decisions you’d need to make:

  • Who will be your personal representative? Who else will serve as a backup?

  • If you have young children, who will take care of them if you can’t? Who else will serve as a backup?

  • If you have young children, do you want them to receive any inheritance left to them fully at age 18? If not, what age would you be comfortable with?

  • Who will be the primary beneficiary or beneficiaries of your estate?

  • Who will be the contingent beneficiary or beneficiaries of your estate?

  • Who do you trust to manage your financial and legal affairs if you can’t? Who else will serve as a backup?

  • Who do you trust to make health care decisions for you and manage your health care if you can’t? Who else will serve as a backup?

  • If you have a terminal condition or permanent loss of consciousness, do you want life support?

The estate planning process:

  1. You schedule a consultation for one or two weeks out. Before the consultation, you fill out an online form to give me the information I’ll need (listed above) and read a short guide introducing you to the documents and major decisions you’ll need to make (outlined above).

  2. You show up to the consultation—which can be in person or virtual—already having thought about your biggest decisions. I ask you some questions about your family, especially about your relationships. I answer your questions and help you understand the potential issues and risks you face, and what estate planning can do for you. If you choose to hire me, we talk about those essential decisions right away. I might need to collect a little more information, like contact info for your health care agent.

  3. After the consultation, I draft a complete estate plan based on our discussion and your major decisions. I send it to you with explanations. Then we email, have a phone call, or meet virtually to talk over the documents. I briefly explain many of the minor decisions that weren’t important to address earlier, and you have a chance to ask for changes or clarifications.

  4. I make and finalize any changes quickly. Then your documents are ready to sign. We either schedule a short meeting to properly execute them in my office, or I send them to you with instructions for how to do it yourself.

That’s it. That’s all the work estate planning has to be. Does it sound like a lot? Or does it sound quite manageable?

I hope it’s the latter. If not, let me know—I’ll know that I have more work to do.


A Quick Start on Simple Estate Planning: Start with your goals

Estate planning starts with identifying your goals. What do you want to accomplish? Why get an estate plan in the first place?

Here are some common goals my clients have for their estate plans:

  • Distribute property at death according to their wishes
  • Make things as simple as possible for their families
  • Avoid probate
  • Name guardians for their young children
  • Delay big distributions to young children or grandchildren until they reach a responsible age (often 25 or 30)
  • Provide for disabled beneficiaries without endangering government benefits
  • Prevent family conflicts over property and health care
  • Give spouses legal authority to manage singly owned assets like life insurance and retirement accounts
  • Put someone trusted in charge of the final affairs
  • Ensure someone trusted can manage health care decisions and finances if they can’t

Estate planning is not planning for good times and normal life. It’s planning for crises. It’s planning for the things that change your life and the lives of those who love you forever. It’s a lot like life insurance—you don’t get it because it’s going to benefit you. You get it because your family might need it, if the worst were to happen.

Consider:

What are your goals? Which is the most important?

Is it more important to keep things simple or control what happens in the future?

Your goals are accomplished by executing estate planning documents. For each document, you’ll need to know what it is and make several decisions about what you want it to say. An estate plan always includes a will, a power of attorney for finances, and a power of attorney for health care; it sometimes includes a trust as well. The decisions you’ll need to make in these documents are generally either who decisions (who will be in charge, who will get the property) or what decisions (what powers they will have, what property they will get).

The rest of this guide gives brief explanations of the basic estate planning documents and the major decisions you’ll need to make in each. By the end you will know what to expect when enacting your own simple estate plan, and you’ll have a head start on making all the important decisions.

Next: Your will >

< Previous: Introduction

A Quick Start on Simple Estate Planning: Introduction

You need to get your will done. But getting started is hard. Researching lawyers, scheduling consultations, attending consultations, comparing prices, asking the right questions, making big decisions—it’s a lot of work. Too much, I think.

“I just want to keep things simple.” I hear that from clients over and over. It’s not just about price. It’s about avoiding complications, expenses, and bureaucracy. Most of my clients just want their final affairs to be as straightforward as possible for their families. They want working with their lawyer to be straightforward, too.

This guide is a straightforward way to get started on your estate planning. All you need is a little education on the basics: what each estate planning document does and the major decisions you’ll need to make. That way, when you do meet with me (or another lawyer), you’ll already be off to a quick start.

Estate planning isn’t fun or exciting. But it is important. By creating your will and powers of attorney (and trust, in some cases), you are caring for your loved ones and giving them tools they might need to care for you. I hope this guide gives you a quick start on that good work.

BSW

 

Next: Start with your goals >

Why I do what I do

Why am I an estate planning and elder law attorney?

I guess it starts with why I’m a lawyer. The simple answer to that is: I knew I would be good at it. I knew it would be an important job, one where I could make a difference in people’s lives. And I knew it would be intellectually challenging. I decided to become a lawyer when I was just a high school senior, and it was a fairly easy decision. It just made sense.

The more intriguing question is why I chose to practice estate planning and elder law. I only came to it some years after law school. In my first years as a lawyer I did some appellate law, legal research, juvenile law, and criminal law. Then I had a 6-month stint as an attorney editor, editing legal books for the State Bar of Wisconsin. It was the closest thing I’d found to a true fit. I loved working on books. I loved the minutiae of editing and the big thinking of developing products. But before long I was driven back to private practice. I wasn’t going to pay back student loans and support a family working for a non-profit.

That’s when an elder law attorney in my town sought me out and offered me a job as his first associate. I took the opportunity. I had always sensed that estate planning and elder law would suit me as a practice area. It doesn’t require much going to court or arguing with other lawyers—just good advice and drafting legal documents. I don’t have a problem with litigation, but I think my temperament is more suited to the role of counselor and advisor than that of advocate. And I knew this practice area had earning potential and would directly help families.

Looking back, I always had the idea that I’d be the kind of lawyer that works with families. My own family was deeply affected by the work of good lawyers, and that sort of impact on people’s lives was a big part of what attracted me to the profession. In law school, I took classes on family law, estate planning, guardian ad litem practice, and elder law. My final semester of classes looked tailor-made for a future elder law attorney. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion—I also immensely enjoyed appellate research and writing, and for a while after I graduated I pursued that. Then I got the chance to learn elder law, and I saw that it could combine my passion for editing and writing with my desire to do meaningful work for families. I took the opportunity and stepped onto my present path.

That’s how I got started. Then, after a year and a half, I decided to leave that elder law firm and start my own practice.

I will always be grateful to the firm that gave me my start in elder law, and I enjoyed working with the people there. But I came to be bothered by the business model. It depended, like many elder law firms, on selling very expensive estate plans with asset protection trusts and helping clients use Medicaid to pay for their long-term care. This was complicated legal work. Yet we spent little time customizing plans for each client; they all turned out nearly identical. I thought the legal documents themselves, though functional, could be vastly improved. Medicaid proved a tricky beast to rely on. And clients never seemed to understand what they were getting into.

When I started meeting with potential clients on my own, I would carefully explain the pros and cons of asset protection planning and whether it made sense with the potential client’s goals. It rarely did. “Asset protection” sounds great, but it turned out that few people were willing to give up the control and ownership of their hard-earned property that is required for it. I began to see that my approach with clients was not compatible with the “protect your stuff from the nursing home” business model.

I wasn’t sure the legal work was worth the fee, and I wasn’t sure it was really making people’s lives better in the end. I wanted to do good, simple work for the same sort of family I came from: hard-working, caring, and of modest means. To do that, I would have to strike out on my own.

Nearly two years later, here I am doing good, simple, affordable work that makes a difference for families just like mine. Why do I do what I do? It’s because, through my journey as a lawyer, I’ve come to believe a number of things:

  • I believe I can make a difference in people’s lives by practicing good, simple estate planning and elder law. My work saves families from bureaucracy in times of crisis and grief.
  • I believe that’s what estate planning and elder law should be all about—avoiding bureaucracy and making things simple.
  • I believe traditional estate planning and elder law are too complicated and too expensive.
  • I believe good health care and good relationships are more important than money.
  • I believe asset protection is not for everyone.

Because I believe these things, I started my own estate planning and elder law practice. I started it to help families like mine. I started it to make estate planning simpler, easier, and less expensive. I started it to do things differently and to make a difference in people’s lives.