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.