What is estate planning, exactly?

Estate planning looks different for everyone because everyone’s situation is unique. The general idea, though, is to take legal action now that ensures your family is taken care of and your wishes are honored in the future.

The first step in estate planning is always to collect information and assess your current situation—not just your finances, but your health and family, too. This lets a lawyer anticipate problems and plan for your unique situation.

Depending on your situation, you will probably identify several of these goals for your estate plan:

  • Pass on your possessions to your spouse or children after you die
  • Make sure your stuff doesn’t have to go through probate (a public and sometimes lengthy process)
  • Name who will take care of your children if something happens to you and your spouse
  • Name someone to make health care decisions for you if you can’t
  • Name someone to manage your finances if you can’t
  • Make your wishes for specific health care known (for example, say when you want your family to “pull the plug”)
  • Ensure your minor or disabled children are provided for
  • Ensure your heirs don’t squander their inheritance
  • Protect your savings and retirement from unforeseen threats (such as a lawsuit)
  • Plan ahead to be eligible for Medicaid or Veterans Benefits, in case you ever need them to pay for long-term care in a nursing home
  • Ensure your money stays in your family, even after you’ve given it to your children
  • Plan for funeral expenses

You accomplish these goals by executing legal documents. Most people think of making a will when they think of estate planning, but that’s usually just one part of the picture. An estate plan may include:

  • A will;
  • A health care power of attorney;
  • A power of attorney for finances;
  • A living will;
  • A personal care plan;
  • A revocable trust; and
  • An irrevocable trust.

When you combine the concepts of financial and health care goals and legal documents, you get a good picture of estate planning. It’s a process:

  1. Assess your current finances, health, and family situation.
  2. Identify problems you’d like to avoid, financial and health care decisions you’d like to make in advance, and any other goals.
  3. Draft and execute legal documents to accomplish your goals.

One last thing. There’s a fourth step in the process: revisiting your documents and updating them from time to time, to keep them current as life and the law changes. Many people wait decades before revising their estate plans, and that can result in unintended consequences. A good estate planning lawyer will have a program or system in place to keep in touch that makes it easy to keep things up to date.

An overview of my work

Now that I’ve been at my new job for a couple of months, here’s a little more detail on my day-to-day work.

People hire our firm for a few different reasons:

  1. They need estate planning. Usually they want to avoid probate, so they need trust-based planning.
  2. They want to protect their life savings from the huge cost of long-term care; they don’t want everything they’ve earned wiped out if they have to go to a nursing home.
  3. They are already in a nursing home (or needing another form of long-term care) and they need to apply for Medicaid while saving as much as possible.
  4. They are a veteran or spouse of a veteran, and want help qualifying and applying for VA benefits.

Of course, we end up doing other kinds of incidental legal work as well—real estate contracts and the like. But that’s the majority of what we do. As time goes on, we will probably do more of the work at the other end of estate planning: probate and trust administration after death.

So how do I accomplish what clients have hired me to do? The legal tool we use in nearly all of our work is the trust—particularly irrevocable trusts. A trust is simply the most flexible, most powerful way to control your possessions. Crucially, it lets you determine now what will happen to your things in the future. That’s what estate planning is all about—anticipating problems and using your legal power to prevent them.

So that’s what drives my work, but how do I actually spend my day? Right now my primary activities are:

  1. Learning—I’m still new to estate planning, so this is my most important task. I do a lot of legal research throughout my day.
  2. Meeting/counseling clients—Helping clients understand what we do and why is always part of the job. Getting information about their unique situation and goals is essential to doing my legal work well.
  3. Drafting legal documents—I draft wills, trusts, powers of attorney, personal care plans, etc.
  4. Business things—I’m one of two attorneys, so I have to be a part of developing business, too. This means marketing, networking, and improving our internal processes. (I’m quickly becoming the go-to technology guy.)

That’s an overview of my daily work and what it accomplishes. The only thing I’d add is: I still like it. I get to solve interesting problems in creative ways each day, and I can’t wait to learn more.

New Year, New Job

The new year brought many changes for me: a new baby, a new car, and now a new job. I wasn’t looking to change my work; life happens, as they say, and I found an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Old networking paid off

This new job is the result of networking I did a year ago (networking does take time to pay off). My new employer is an attorney whose practice is starting to take off, and he needed another lawyer to handle the work. He wanted a young lawyer he could mentor and train. He talked to another attorney involved in the county bar association, who remembered me from the bar events and networking I did with her. She introduced us via email, and the connection was made.

(Side note: part of this story is the value of being one of the few young lawyers in areas outside the big cities. I wasn’t competing with many other “young lawyers to mentor” in the mind of my networking contact.)

What makes my new work unique

What is this new job? It’s mostly estate planning—wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and such. These are legal documents everyone needs and no one likes getting. I say “mostly” because we also do elder law, which means we help people deal with Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, and long-term healthcare.

What makes my work unique is the combination of estate planning and elder law. Most lawyers will “do estate planning,” even if it’s not their focus. They design a will or trust with one concern: distributing the client’s stuff per his or her wishes (and probably trying to avoid probate and taxes while they’re at it).

We do that too, of course, but we also go further: we make a plan that takes into account Medicaid eligibility, having to pay for a nursing home, veteran’s benefits, future lawsuits, family conflict, and the client’s healthcare wishes.

I still get to work with words

In my old job, I edited legal books; I needed creative thinking, planning, organizational skills, knowledge of a specific set of rules (grammar and style), and lots of attention to detail. I enjoyed that kind of work.

Thankfully, I’ll continue to work with words in my new job. The core of my work will be drafting legal documents—documents that have legal force and need to be correct and clear. I’m going to enjoy giving clients something I know is well-drafted (because so many legal documents aren’t).

The best part: It’s fun

The best part of this new job, however, is telling people that they have more power over their future than they ever knew. It’s telling them that they can provide for their families, even if the worst happens.

I think practicing law this way is fun. It’s fun because I get to help people with my specialized knowledge. It’s fun because I get to tell people they have power over their future that they never knew about. And it’s fun because what I do is kind of like magic; we put the right words on paper and sign it, and reality changes, and now my client’s stuff is controlled by their own rules instead of someone else’s.

I still have a lot to learn, but I’m already happy. I’m happy that I get to continue working with words and editing, and I’m happy that I get to help people.