Every week, I meet with prospective new clients who are interested in doing estate planning. And invariably, one of my first questions is “have you done any estate planning before?” It’s a simple question, only used for information gathering. But every week, without fail, some of these people look at me sheepishly and say “no.” From the expressions on their faces, I can always tell that these will be the folks who will then launch into an explanation in defense of not having done estate planning until now. Our work schedules are crazy, they tell me! We thought we’d wait until “things calm down a bit!” We meant to do this right after our daughter was born, but now we’ve decided we’ll do it before her wedding this summer! The truly surprising thing about this conversation is that variations of it happens with people and families of all ages – from 25 to 85 – and up. And my response is always the same: “It doesn’t matter. You’re here now.”
I can’t argue with the notion that there is always too much to do. Our lives are busier and more complicated than ever. But if you are waiting to plan until things calm down a bit, you might find that you are too late! Moreover, I think there’s more occurring when people avoid making estate planning decisions than just simple procrastination. Some other things may be at work:
Some people are just plain anxious about going to see an attorney, or visiting a law office, or both. And why wouldn’t they be? Perhaps their previous experience was with a lawyer who tossed complex Latin phrases around like confetti, or who used different terms to describe the same person (Executor? Personal Representative?) or the same thing (Proof of Trust? Certificate of Trust? Certification of Trust?). Perhaps they went to an attorney who made them feel embarrassed about their previous lack of knowledge of the law, or seemed to be condescending when explaining how a certain area of the law works. Worst of all, perhaps they left that lawyer’s office feeling more confused than when they went in.
Feeling nervous about making an appointment with a lawyer, and keeping that appointment, is natural. Lawyers sometimes seem to speak a separate language, and this can be very off-putting.
There is good news on this front, however. A good estate planning attorney knows that she is not there merely to draft documents; rather, she is a counselor to her clients. This is one of the most important roles a lawyer can play, and it means that she has a duty to explain to her clients exactly what their documents mean, how they work, and why they are crucial to have in place. At Legacy Law Center, we make sure that no one leaves carrying an estate plan – and unanswered questions. We are your resource to make sure you know exactly what planning you have, and we communicate clearly. We speak English, not Legalese!
You don’t have to tell me that procrastination is an easy trap to fall into. Ask your fellow Americans about this every April 14th! When you put off estate planning, this desire to procrastinate can grow even stronger because in order to tackle it, you have to tell someone how long you’ve been procrastinating (remember my question to prospective clients about whether they’ve done estate planning before?). Finally, making things worse is that the longer you procrastinate, the bigger and more insurmountable making that phone call becomes. It’s just like the pile of mail on the kitchen table: the longer you ignore it, the bigger it seems to grow.
I have good news here, too. Remember the answer to my question from before? “It doesn’t matter, you’re here now.” I cannot stress enough how important that answer is. As long as you are alive and have the mental capacity to create legal documents, you are not too late. Whether your first child is still a toddler or you are about to retire, come in and see us. We don’t judge, we understand – and we do want you to get your plan in place. Moreover, I have never once had a client finish their estate plan and tell me “I wish I had never done that!” Rather, we find that creating a plan almost invariably results in relief and peace of mind.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s true: unless you have discovered the fountain of eternal youth (and if you have, please share the directions), you are going to die someday. You may know that theoretically, but the process of estate planning brings it into sharp relief for many people. Creating powers of attorney, wills, trusts, memoranda of personal property and other documents that are needed for a complete estate plan does require you to envision a world without you in it any longer.
I have more good news on this front, although I can’t tell you that you’re immortal. It’s true that estate planning does mean contemplating what will happen after you’re gone, whether that means selecting a guardian for your children or naming beneficiaries for your assets. On the other hand, this is actually a good thing. Creating a comprehensive estate plan means that when you become ill or pass away, your wishes will govern what happens to your family and your property. You control who cares for your children. You decide who gets your money, and when. Estate planning can actually take away some of the fear you may have of death, because you know that your loved ones will be cared for in the manner that you wished during life.
Some people put off beginning or finalizing an estate plan because of the decision-making involved – namely, selecting people to serve in various roles in your plan. Personal Representative? Power of Attorney? Patient Advocate? Some client comments are very familiar to me:
“There is no one in my family I trust enough to make decisions for me.”
“I’m afraid of hurting one child’s feelings if I select another child first.”
“I want my mother to be the guardian of my children, but she is in her seventies now. Is that too old?”
The bad news is that there are no pre-recorded, canned answers to these issues. The good news is that at Legacy Law Center, we spend the time to talk through these scenarios with each of our clients, outlining different possibilities, working through options, and providing guidelines to share with those family members, friends or institutions you do select. This issue might seem overwhelming at first, but when you speak to someone who is experienced at counseling clients through it and make informed, careful decisions, the result is almost always – you guessed it – peace of mind.
Estate planning with a knowledgeable, patient specialist can be a great experience that provides you not with fear or anxiety, but rather with a sense of peace and accomplishment. There’s never been a better time to cross it off your To Do list!
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