BRATTLEBORO—A good estate-planning attorney can prepare us for the inevitable.
Our demise, whether slow or sudden, is not a subject we tend to dwell on in our busy lives. Setting aside the time to address our death can be low on our list of priorities.
But when pushed, most of us have given some thought to questions of how we want to be treated as we decline and after we pass on, and to how we want our property to be handled at that time.
We want to ensure that our loved ones have some financial security. We hope to minimize the confusion and acrimony that can arise during our later years and after we pass away.
Estate planning attorneys are the professionals that we call upon to prepare for those times.
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In starting an estate plan, an important first step is for the attorney and the client to talk openly. In meetings, the attorney will learn about the client’s family, finances, and property, then determine the client’s wishes and plans for the disposition of property.
The communication phase is an often-overlooked and perhaps undervalued part of the estate-planning process. This questioning process offers the opportunity for the attorney and client to develop a relationship that leads to an understanding.
Clients might be eager to move on to the drafting phase, but most estate-planning attorneys will explain that document drafting can be much shorter and more efficient if the proper questioning and planning has already taken place.
These conversations can also dispel myths about estate planning, clarify roles, and help families begin to have their own discussions that are necessary to carry out the client’s wishes. Relationships can become strained after the death of a loved one — so much so that even the well-made estate plan can unravel.
My colleagues and I ask our clients to complete an estate planning questionnaire prior to the initial conference. This allows the attorney to efficiently gather necessary information and guide the conversation effectively.
The process of completing the questionnaire can also encourage important family conversations about what roles family members would fill, such as agents under powers of attorney, agents under advance directives, and executors of estates.
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After the initial conference, my colleagues and I will draft key estate-planning documents. Our client’s estate plans will typically include a Last Will and Testament, a Durable General Power of Attorney, an Advance Directive, and, when appropriate, a Trust Agreement.
Additional documents such as deeds, beneficiary designations, and transfer on death forms are often required to complete or update the estate plan.
We send our clients drafts of the estate planning documents to review, along with a letter summarizing these documents and addressing additional steps that they will want to take to complete the planning process.
Changes to those documents can often be discussed during a subsequent telephone call. Clients then sign their estate planning documents before witnesses and a Notary Public.
Following the final meeting, originals and copies of the documents are given to the client or recorded and filed, as needed.
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Updating estate planning documents is important because tax laws change and family members are born, marry, and die. Clients who plan their estates can reduce or eliminate estate taxes, minimize delay or expense in settling their estates, and — perhaps most importantly — gain the comfort that their wishes will be carried out after they’re gone.
Families will then have a clear plan so that potential confusion and acrimony is avoided, making the job of the executor much easier.