How to Prepare to Meet with an Estate Planning Attorney

October 20, 2015
Lindsay M. Schoeneberger

“Oh that wasn’t so bad.”  “You weren’t as intimidating as I thought a lawyer would be.” “I’m glad that’s done!”  “Oh how I dreaded this meeting!”

These are all things I have heard clients say after we meet to discuss their estate plans.  For a lot of people the idea of thinking about their own mortality is difficult.  But add speaking with someone else about it and planning for all the what ifs out there? Forget about it.  They’d rather have their teeth drilled without Novocain. But it doesn’t have to be that scary or difficult.  When I meet with clients for the first time to discuss their estate planning documents, I first ask them which documents we are drafting.  I do this because many times people are not aware that a good estate plan starts with three basic documents- a Will, a Financial Power of Attorney, and a Healthcare Power of Attorney/ Advanced Healthcare Directive (for more information on these three documents, check out our blog article The Three Estate Planning Documents You Need).

After explaining all three documents, we determine which ones are necessary for that particular client.  While I usually strongly recommend that a client have all three, there can be situations where one or two of the documents are not needed.  I generally start with the Will.  Believe it or not, in a majority of cases, that is the easiest document to gather information for, especially when my clients come prepared.

So how can you be a prepared client?  First think about your assets.  Do you own a home? Do you have a retirement account?  Do you have other investments? What else do you have that it is important to you gets passed on to the right person?  Next figure out what assets have beneficiary designations or are titled jointly.  When possible, bring that information with you.  While those assets generally pass outside of the Will, an attorney can make sure they are going to the person you intend and in the manner you intend.  Now you need to figure out who you want all of your other assets to go to.  This can be easy in some cases – spouse then children.  In other cases, you might want things divided differently.  Or, if you aren’t sure, these are all things that can be discussed with your attorney.  You also need to have a what if plan.  What if something happens to you and your children at the same time?  Then what?  Who gets your assets?  While these scenarios may not always play out, it can give you peace of mind to know you’ve got it covered. After you have determined what you have and who gets it, you need to pick an executor.  This is someone you trust to follow your wishes.  (Come back tomorrow for more information on selecting an executor or fiduciary.)  Finally, if you have children or minor beneficiaries you have a few more steps.  First you must determine a guardian for your children.  I am often concerned that the best decision has not been made when clients select a guardian in my office without having first discussed it or spoken with that person.  I know it is not a pleasant conversation, but it is an essential one to have!  Second, figure out when you want your children or grandchildren to inherit if they are still minors.  Depending on a how a Will is structured, their share can go to them outright at 18 or be held in trust until whatever age you designate.  I know this might seem like a lot of information to process but chances are you’ve already thought about at least some of it.  The answers can be as simple as everything to my spouse, then my children at age 25.  But just make sure that answer is right for you.

Some other things to think about:

  • Who do you want to make healthcare decisions for you?
  • Who do you want to be your alternate healthcare decision maker?
  • Are you an organ donor or do you want to be an organ donor?
  • Do you want life sustaining treatment when in an end stage medical condition?
  • Who do you want to be able to make financial decisions for you?
  • Do you regularly make financial gifts? Do you want that to continue?

It is very important to speak with an attorney that has experience drafting estate planning documents.  You might consider yourself and your family to be the typical family that doesn’t require a fancy estate plan.  And you very well may be.  Or you might be that one family that has a quirk, that requires something different, like a Special Needs Trust.  It is important to catch those things in the planning stages to prevent a nightmare or unintended complications in the estate administration process.

Lindsay Schoeneberger is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning.