About Estate Planning

What is an estate?

Your “estate” is whatever you own when you die. A common myth is that you only have an estate if you have a lot of money. Your estate can be $100 or $1,000,000 if that’s what you own at death. It also includes your debts.

What is an estate plan?

An estate plan means planning for how your assets (your estate) will pass to other people (or organizations, such as charity) when you die.

Do I really need a will?

I have yet to find someone who wouldn’t have some benefit from making a will, but it’s true that how much it benefits you will vary greatly depending on your goals and your family situation.

If you die without a will, state law says what will happen to your assets. Think of this as a default will in the law. Therefore, the question is if you want to leave your estate to the default rules. Common situations that usually do not fit well and you’ll want to customize are 1) if you have minor or young adult children; 2) if you or your spouse have children from another relationship (blended families); 3) if you don’t want to leave your assets all to your spouse then children in equal proportions (or even if you are treating children equally but want to give them specific assets, or decide who is the Personal Representative); 4) If you are in a committed long-term relationship but have chosen not to get married; 5) If you don’t have children.

Do I need a trust?

Learn more about this topic here.

Maybe. I don’t recommend trusts for all of my clients. I promise I won’t try to sell you on one, and I won’t recommend one unless I really think you’d benefit.

A trust is basically an alternative way to hold onto or pass property. There are two different categories of trusts: testamentary and living trusts.  I do believe that parents of young children “need” at least a testamentary trust, which would only go into effect if both parents died while their children are under a certain age (which you can choose).  Living trusts are a great tool if you want to do more comprehensive planning, and many people appreciate that they can avoid probate. More information on trusts.

I just want to name a guardian for my kids. Do I need a full estate plan?

There are two major benefits to estate planning when you have kids. One is naming a guardian, and two is financial management of their inheritance. Most people do estate planning because they know they are supposed to name a guardian, but I honestly think that the financial aspect is the underdog of planning and is actually more important. If you do not name a guardian, a court will do it for you (although it may not be who you would want, they will have a guardian). If you do not set up the financial management, which means including at least a testamentary trust in your Will, it simply cannot be set up after-the-fact. If you die while your kids are minors and without a trust, their inheritance will have court oversight (which means added time and expense) and usually can only be drawn out until age 21. Most people prefer to extend this to a later age, with more choices over the terms of the trust, and appoint a trusted relative, friend, or bank to manage the accounts.

Most people also choose to do a Power of Attorney and Health Care Directive at the same time as a Will because it’s convenient to do these at the same time as long as you’re seeing an attorney, and because the roles and purposes often overlap. Most of my estate planning clients do these as part of a package plan.

What is probate?

Probate is a type of of court proceeding that is used to transfer property after someone dies. Not all property has to pass through a probate, only property that has no other “automatic” way to transfer, such as by beneficiary designation or to other joint owners (depending on the type of ownership).

Why does everyone talk about avoiding probate? Why does that even matter?

Probate, like any court process, takes time and money. How easy it is to avoid that process depends on your assets, beneficiaries, and how much you understand and are able to maintain the alternatives, such as a living trust. Deciding whether to try to avoid probate is one of the things we would discuss at our first meeting. It’s great if we can put a plan in place that avoids probate, but I believe that more straightforward plans also have their place depending on client needs and values.

There is a lot of hype in the media about avoiding probate, but I think it’s important to note that the 50 states all have different probate processes—a probate in Minnesota is significantly less costly than a probate in some other states such as California—so if you are reading about why to avoid probate, look at where the source is. I love it when I can help people avoid probate, but I also promise I won’t upsell you a more complicated plan than makes sense for you.

I'm married. Can you represent my spouse and me together, or do we need separate attorneys?

It’s very common in estate planning for me to represent both spouses together. In most cases your goals are aligned well enough that it makes it more efficient and therefore cost effective to have your plans done together.

Occasionally spouses may benefit from having separate attorneys. My ethics rules prevent me from representing you both if there is a conflict of interests, which I will explain to you in person, but it is rare for that to happen.

How much does an estate plan cost?

Please contact me for an estimate, or mention to me that you’d like a quote during the intake process I can usually quote a fee with just a little bit of information about you (like if you’re married, if you have kids and how old they are). I don’t list fees on my website just because you might not know what type of plan(s) you should have. Then, if you want to move forward and meet with me, we will set a fee at the end of the first meeting. A flat fee is charged as often as possible.  I understand you want to know up front how much it will cost, and I value transparency in billing.

Do I have to pay you in full up front?

It is my policy to receive 50% payment at the end of the first meeting or before moving forward with any drafts, although some clients prefer to make one payment for convenience. I charge flat fees (fixed fees) as often as possible to avoid surprises at the end of the process.  The balance is due when I send drafts of your documents, but as a practical matter many clients bring payment to our final signing meeting.

What kinds of payment do you accept?

I prefer to be paid by check, e-check through my payment website, or cash, but I do also accept credit cards. If you need to pay in smaller amounts than 50% I can set up recurring payment plans with credit cards.

What should I prepare for our first meeting?

I will send you an intake form that will help you walk through all of the important information I’ll need for our meeting. Primarily that will ask for information about your “important people” (family, anyone you want to name as a guardian or trustee or similar role) and includes a financial inventory. It’s also often helpful for me to review deeds (especially if you own property besides your home). If you already have a will, health care directive, or power of attorney, please bring these to the meeting. If we are meeting virtually, I have a few ways you can send these to me securely electronically.

Will you keep my original will for me?

I will keep only electronic (PDF) copies of your documents. As people move around more often these days its better for you to have your originals, but I also keep the electronic backups for for your benefit in case something happens to the originals. I take data storage and confidentiality seriously in order to preserve your backups.

What should I do with my estate plan once I have it?

I recommend keeping your documents somewhere secure, ideally in a fire-proof safe in your home. Safety deposit boxes at banks are also acceptable but can often be problematic for your loved ones trying to access documents in case of emergency or unexpected events, so if you do choose a safety deposit box please make sure people know the location of the box and that someone is authorized to access it.

I also recommend telling your primary and backup agents that you have documents and where they are — but I don’t advise giving out copies. It’s common for people to make updates as they go through life, and if you give out copies then you have to go back and update those every time, you might forget who has copies or forget to send them the update, or a more uncomfortable situation would be if you change your agents and don’t want to tell your old agent that they are no longer named in your documents. (For Powers of Attorney we have to notify them of the change, but not for other documents.)

Can I make changes to my plan? If yes, how do I do it?

Yes! Minor changes are very easy to make with a simple amendment. Often people just want to change their guardians, trustees, or the ages at which their children would inherit from a trust. If making several small changes, or changing the overall structure of your plan, then it’s usually more efficient to start with a new document.

It can’t be changed after your death, except for certain joint trusts the living spouse may be able to make amendments. Also certain types of trusts, called irrevocable trusts, are also not amendable, but those are usually done for specific purposes and not included in most normal estate planning (you would know if you had one of these!)