Thursday, October 01, 2015

Estate planning and drafting a will: the big bummer! Or not....

It may surprise you that once upon a time, in a galaxy at least 10 years in the past, I used to work for an attorney who did estate planning and drafted wills for his clients.  Heck, he even drafted a draft will for myself and my husband, one we never signed.  I know, it's a case of the cobbler's kids having no shoes.  Ten years later.... well, still don't have one.

What happened?  While we were willing then to think about the big What If's that can keep you up at night, one spouse losing the other, what if we both died, who would we want to be guardian of our child?  Who in our family would we want to take in our child if the worst happened? 

As it turned out, we were still working on that.  We hadn't settled on a guardian for our child, mainly because of where everyone was in their life.  My hubby's sister, ultra responsible to the core, well, she is exactly that --- a Sister.  With a capital S.  As in a consecrated religious.  A nun (though nuns are cloistered, and so many people actually think that nun is synonymous with being a Sister, but I digress.)  Two of my siblings were as yet unmarried and the other struggled with her own family. 

It was easier to "think about it" for a while.  Then, we moved.  Newsflash:  If you move to a different state, the laws are different.  We would have to start over with a different attorney since we'd slacked.

My anecdote above comes out of an article I read about why more people don't have wills over on Fox Business.  It goes on to say that it's because it's not because it's so depressing to contemplate what happens to your stuff after you die, it's because of a lack of financial know-how!  They aren't exactly teaching high school seniors about these things, but maybe they should, at least to some degree.  I challenge teachers to cover the basics of their state with regard to distribution of personal property if something should happen to them.  The reality is that after high school, you engage in many activities where death comes up.  College loans?  What happens to those if you die before paying them off?  Car loan for your first car?  Who gets your car if you die?  Who do you want to get your car?  Joining the military?  I'm thinking they talk to you at least a little bit since you have to name a beneficiary for a life insurance policy.

So, if you are lacking that financial know-how, what can you do?  Legal Zoom has a list of documents you want to dig up when you are preparing for a meeting.  Much of the info is at least peripherally related to your annual tax return/supporting documents you used to file.  Perhaps much of what you need is even now available online for easy printing.  Go through the mental list of assets including:  bank accounts, IRA/401(k) or other retirement vehicles, homes, other real property, vehicles/boats, jewelry, stock, and insurance (both private and work-related). Does a wealthy relative have you in their own will?  That is also relevant information for your attorney to know.

Then go through your liabilities list, which might look like this: vehicle loans, student loans, mortgage, personal loans, tax bills, and credit card debt.  Gather all of your debt information and remember, your attorney is not there to judge you based on your Discover card balance.  He or she needs an accurate picture of your finances to best evaluate your needs.  Don't hide financial information.

But I'll share some wisdom with you:  my former boss was very adept at going through other people's documents, talking with them about their assets/debts, analyzing their insurance needs, etc.  Your attorney has an idea of typical assets and typical debts and will ask you questions to make sure they have enough information to assist you properly.

It doesn't have to be a mountain when you can make it a mole hill.  Don't let the lack of one or two pieces of information hold you up.  Make that appointment anyway. You likely will not walk out that day with a will --- it's possible, but go in expecting that you'll get a little homework or need to think about things.  And keep yourself on track, if you can.  That means that just as you schedule your next dentist appointment the minute you walk out with your freshly megawatted smile, you should make another appointment with your attorney to finish up the details.  This will make you accountable to yourself and, perhaps, stop you from procrastinating.


Believe it or not, your attorney wants to get you across the finish line!  Did you read that link on Fox Business?  A quarter of folks don't have a will.  Having a will can accomplish many things to put your mind at ease. 

First, if you have minor children or even a special needs child, you can put your wishes in indelible ink and dictate how they will be provided for if you predecease them.

Secondly, any wishes (and include photographs of said objects) for specific bequests can be made, making your intentions clear. 

Thirdly, dying without a will vs. with one can have significant tax complications.  If you're re-married, it can most definitely affect your spouse's quality of life as many states have laws in place that dictate how an estate will be settled absent a will when there was a prior marriage resulting in children.  It may not be settled as you would prefer! 

Finally, your attorney wants to save you money.  He or she really does!  Their advice can be invaluable on how assets should be titled to avoid pesky estate and death taxes.  Their advice can also help ensure for a smooth transition of assets after you're gone.  No one wants to leave a legal mess behind for someone else to clean up.  Make it easier on those left behind by being proactive now.

Remember:  You don't have to have the "know-how" --- just find yourself a competent attorney who concentrates in estate planning, wills, and estates and you'll be in good hands!  Ask around for recommends, look for free seminars local to you where estate planning is a topic, or grab that phone book, old school style.

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