Hiring the person who will help you put together your estate plan can be tricky. It’s not like buying a car, or a computer, or some other consumer good that you are going to use on a regular basis and can easily evaluate. To a certain extent, you’re going to have to rely on the assurances of an estate planning professional that the plan with which you end up will accomplish your goals and address your concerns.
There are, however, at least a few characteristics that any good estate plan will have:
- You understand it. Your estate plan is your instructions to your family members, friends, business associates, and creditors about how you want your affairs settled, who you want to receive and manage your assets, what you consider to be important, and how you want to be cared for and remembered. If you don’t understand it, how will the people who are supposed to follow those instructions? Your documents will likely include a couple of Latin phrases and a few obscure statutory citations. But for the most part, they should be well organized, written in plain English, and easy to follow by any adult with average reading ability. If your documents contain a bunch of “said testators” and “hereinafters,” they weren’t written with usability in mind. That’s going to be a problem when it matters.
- It is tailored to your needs. This may seem obvious, but, sad to say, there are a lot of estate planning professionals whose business model depends on minimizing the amount of personalization they do for each client. Was your plan developed based on your specific needs, or was it a one-size-fits-all template? Do you have a living trust because your attorney told you everyone needs one, or because, after reviewing your goals and concerns, you determined a trust would address your concerns better than a will would? Did you select your representatives, guardians, and agents because they are well qualified to carry out their duties or because they were the first names you thought of? An estate plan should be made affirmatively, not with shoulder shrugging and resignation.
- It addresses more than what will happen with your assets after you pass away. You are much more likely to suffer a disabling injury than you are to die. And the problems that can arise, and the fights that your family members can get into, are, in many cases, the same as after you pass away. Some of the most famous probate court fights involve healthcare decisions for disabled people, not post-death distribution of assets. Your estate plan is more than a will. It’s your power of attorney appointments, your end of life instructions, your memorial instructions, your insurance and account beneficiary designations, etc.
- It’s coordinated with your titled assets and beneficiary designations. A lot of people think that their will will control distribution of all their assets after they pass away. Actually, your biggest assets, including your home and your retirement accounts, will be distributed according to the instructions you attach to them, either in the title or in the beneficiary designations. There can be a lot of advantages to passing your assets through these instructions, rather than through a trust or a will. But that needs to happen as the result of a deliberate decision. Not confirming that your titles and beneficiary designations are consistent with your plan will entirely undermine that plan. Your planning professional should instruct you on how to ensure all your documents are consistent with one another.
As with every major purchase, price is a consideration, but it should not be the only factor you consider when deciding how to get your estate plan done. It is very unlikely that the cheapest option you can find will include all of the characteristics above. A plan that does meet all of the characteristics described above has a very good chance of working as you expect.