So you have finally made an appointment with an estate planning attorney and are working to get your affairs in order. Now that you’ve scheduled that appointment, what’s the next step? Getting yourself organized will make your first appointment a much more valuable and productive experience, and will set the stage for a smoother and faster process overall.
Before You Meet With Your Attorney: 3 Things to do to Get Organized
Here are 3 ways to get yourself organized and prepared for your first meeting with your attorney:
1. Make a complete list of your assets and liabilities.
a. Make a list of all your most significant assets, including real estate, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, and life insurance (fortunately, you do not need to make a list of your personal property – i.e., the stuff in your house that you can pick up and move around).
b. Refresh your memory about how you own your assets that have names and titles attached to them. Is your house in your name alone or do you own it jointly with someone else, such as your spouse, a child, or a sibling? What about your cars? Any major business interests? Making sure your property is owned as you think it is is one of the most critical parts of estate planning. Don’t make any assumptions here. If it has been awhile since you looked at your property titles, pull them out and review them now.
c. Confirm whether you have already designated a beneficiary on all of your bank, investment, and retirement accounts, as well as all life insurance policies. Again, don’t assume that you correctly remember what these say. People frequently forget that they hadn’t changed their designations after they got married or after they had a kid. Such errors can completely undo the best made estate plans.
d. Figure out how much debt you have, both long term and short. If you don’t have at least as much life insurance as you have debt, think through how your loved ones are going to deal with those debts if you pass away or become disabled.
2. Think about who you want to inherit your estate, when you want them to inherit it, and how.
There are many ways to pass your property to beneficiaries. You can give it to them outright, no strings attached. You can specify that they should only receive it after they have achieved certain life milestones, such as graduating from college or getting married. You can give it to them in parts, as they reach certain ages. Or you can give it to someone else to hold for them in trust, with that person having the power to decide when they should receive it.
Your attorney will have some advice for you about the kinds of things you need to consider when naming your heirs, but you probably know better than anyone what they need and when they will be ready to receive it.
3. Think about who you want to be in charge if you become incapacitated or die.
Along with naming guardians for your minor children (if you have them), choosing the people who will serve as your fiduciaries (including the personal representative of your estate, the trustee of any trusts you create, and your financial and medical agents) is, by far, the most important decision you will need to make.
Why? Because if you choose the wrong people for the jobs, or if someone you choose declines to serve or can’t serve, the estate plan that you have so carefully put together will come to a grinding halt.
You will want to get advice from your attorney about how to choose the people or institutions who will serve as your fiduciaries, but come to your first appointment with at least a few ideas about which family members or friends will be good candidates – and which will not. You cannot worry about offending people with these decisions. These are not honorary titles. They are important jobs that only certain types of people can do well.
It’s a lot to think about and organize, but it will be well worth it. I have a questionnaire to help guide my clients through the process of identifying what is important to them. Feel free to take a look.