The expansion of our firm into estate planning, got me thinking about how the practice of law has evolved. It now includes the growth of the do-it-yourself, online will-making and estate planning option.
Unlike in injury law (where contingency fees reign and thereby any injured person, regardless of their finances, can hire a lawyer and gain access to the justice system), estate planning lawyers typically charge either an upfront flat fee or by the hour (or a hybrid of the two) for the work they do.
Why using an attorney beats online options
With technology and innovation have come cheap alternatives via online legal drafting services. While this is a seemingly easy alternative, the real question is whether that cheap option is in your best interest.
My answer is that it’s not.
Most of us understand that our will (frequently accompanied by a trust) is our opportunity to spell out how and where our stuff (a.k.a. our assets) will go upon our death.
Without a will, the state decides for us. Well-drafted documents, on the other hand, anticipate the pitfalls, address the complicated and/or unique circumstances of our situation and protect our interests and those we want to take care of.
Because creditors seeking to get paid look to the probate process and the assets in the probate estate, another important aspect of good estate planning is ensuring that whenever possible assets are protected and pass outside of the probate estate.
Finally, professionally prepared documents ensure our documents are properly executed so that upon our death, the probate process goes smoothly.
The cookie-cutter options don’t generally allow for such personalization, nor do they include the personalized advice regarding your individual needs, nor the attention that comes with live, face-to-face interaction with a real professional.
Is a professional worth the investment?
An experience I had as a young lawyer provides a good example of how costly it can be to be “penny wise and pound foolish” when it comes to your last will and testament.
I was a young Army JAG lawyer providing free legal assistance (i.e., general, civil legal counsel) to soldiers, their families and retirees. In this capacity, I actually drafted a lot of wills. (Getting a will, a power of attorney and similar documents was an essential part of getting every soldier ready to deploy.) One afternoon, a distinguished, elderly retiree sat down with me to discuss his estate planning needs.
As things unfolded, it turned out he had a sizeable estate. In short order, it was apparent that he needed the help of a more experienced professional. My exposure to the nuances of estate law, including the tax ramifications, did not lend itself to his needs. The lesson: While I ended up costing him some money up-front, I undoubtedly saved his heirs much more later on.
As an attorney with some relevant experience under my belt, I am still mindful of this lesson. And thus far, have stuck to the truth of that adage that says a woman who is her own lawyer has a fool for a client!
Estate plans necessary at various stages in life
Throughout the various stages of my life, I have entrusted my estate planning needs to an experienced lawyer. With a licensed professional, I can discuss issues, options, ramifications. I also count on them to put together a near full-proof plan that addresses my specific needs and avoids legal pitfalls.
- As a young and unmarried person: Making sure what little stuff I had went to who I wanted to have it. While I could have relied at this stage on an online option, my concern for unintended consequences made hiring an attorney worth the cost. (Good lawyers plan not just for the foreseeable, but also the unlikely. For example, are there appropriate contingencies if I win Powerball and shortly thereafter die?)
- As a married person with young kids:
- First to ensure that in the unlikely event both my then-husband and I died simultaneously, our children would be raised and cared for by someone we’d mindfully selected.
- Just as important in the event we both died was to ensure our estate was managed by someone of our choosing. (This, incidentally, was not the same person we chose to raise our kids.)
- We did not want our kids at age 18 (i.e., legally adults) to suddenly gain control of our estate. Instead, via trust, we pushed that milestone to a time when we thought they’d have enough maturity and experience to better handle that responsibility.
- After my divorce:
- Florida law would treat my former spouse as if he had predeceased me upon our divorce. But this was a significant life event that necessitated an update to my will. Naming my primary beneficiary was an important change. It was also critical to ensure my wishes were correctly addressed — including with respect to my now legally adult kids.
Other times to update your documents
- The death of a spouse is another life event that could drastically affect an existing estate plan. Another important one is upon remarriage, especially when blending families with kids.
- Moving to Florida from out-of-state is another important milestone that should prompt an appointment with an estate planning attorney. A trained professional can spot issues due to differences in state law that could be problematic for new Floridians.
- Planning for your later years: Aging gracefully should include planning for the possibility of our decline. In addition to a will, an estate plan can designate someone to act on our behalf if and when unable (via a durable power of attorney). It also allows for someone to help make medical and health-related decisions (via a health care surrogate and living will). Planning ahead avoids the potentially unwieldy process of going to court and having someone not of our choosing acting as your personal guardian.
Estate plan should provide peace of mind
An estate plan should provide an individually tailored plan designed to protect you and your loved ones.
Bottom line is that it provides peace of mind. So, if you find yourself in need of estate planning help, trust a professional and let us help you. After all, in the end (unfortunate pun, not intended), isn’t peace of mind truly priceless?