So I saw this post today, via Get Your Shit Together, entitled "One Day, You're Going to Die. Here's How To Prepare for It" - of course it caught my attention!
I strongly disagree with the DIY approach to estate planning and the idea that lawyers are optional for most people. It is nothing new or novel for people to inherently distrust lawyers (hello, Shakespeare!?!) and there are plenty of examples of why the public has that unfortunately over broad perspective. That's why I often feel compelled to use the qualifier "a good one" when I do tell people I'm a lawyer.
I also understand that it is difficult to fully appreciate the value of something it's hard to test oneself without the same training, expertise, and experience evaluating. But if you think it's just pure self-interest on the part of lawyers who practice in the distinct area of estate planning that caution you not to try to create your own legal documents, even with the "help" of pre-made, online or boxed forms, you are doing yourself a disservice.
I would be bored silly if all I did all day every day was plug my clients' names into the same standard forms over and over with nothing more to it! When I review my clients' family and financial information and discuss the specifics of their situations with them we dig deep into what their areas of concern are and how we can best address those to accomplish the clients' unique goals. I have actually been quite surprised to learn how widely those goals vary and to learn that what might look at first like very similar circumstances calling for a particular type of plan are not necessarily what my clients prioritize themselves and want to create. That's why the counseling piece is so crucial to really putting the right parts together to create a complete estate plan to fit the individual client's needs.
The other invaluable role of legal counseling in the process is being able to share with my clients my experience and expertise to offer insight into possible unintended consequences of their first choices and alternatives they might never have otherwise considered. I also routinely facilitate productive conversations between spouses to help them arrive at mutually agreeable decisions about such critically important pieces of their plan as who, and in what order, will serve as guardian for their minor children, one of many "hot button" topics in estate planning.
Lawyers who practice in this specific, complex, constantly evolving area of the law know about the most recent changes to probate, guardianship, and tax codes that affect proper planning. We know what red flags to spot, what life milestones and markers suggest review and changes may be necessary, and how to deal with tricky family and complex financial situations. Every family has its own complexities, though every client seems to think it's only in their family! Everyone has at least something, tangible or otherwise, that's really valuable and meaningful to someone else. People routinely forget about certain assets, most people aren't completely sure of which assets count as part of their probate estate or their estate-taxable estate, or what that even means and what the difference is between the two. People are often unsure of their assets' current values or who is set to receive them. I can't even count the number of times I've seen married couples with minor children who have ex-spouses or boyrfriends/girlfriends or their parents or siblings as current beneficiaries of their retirement plans because they set those plans up and forgot to update that piece of it. And in almost every couple I've had the privilege to work with to date, there is one family CFO if you will, while the other is more or less "in the dark" about the specifics, details, and location of records and contacts for the family's financial information.
The truth is, at least amongst the vast majority of my peers, friends, and clients, almost all of us start out thinking we don't have much and just need a simple Will, but almost all of us are dead wrong about that. The trouble is we we only find out when we take the time to really learn, and that takes time and money we feel short on to start, or our loved ones find out the hard way when it's already too late for us. Clients come in and roll their eyes (or wipe tears) while sharing the horror shows of their experiences dealing with loved ones who didn't take the time or spend the money to plan their own affairs. Those clients who've seen it up close and personal don't want to burden their surviving loved ones that way.
The other piece of the advice in that article I take exception to is the idea of shopping around for a lawyer via free consultations. I think free consultations are a waste of everyone's time. Either the lawyer is giving away free legal advice without getting fairly compensated for it (and will come to regret it) or the client's time is being wasted by having what amounts to little more than a meet and greet with the lawyer who hopes to convert the prospective client into a paying client. Instead, I believe the lawyer should have processes and information readily available up front to help the prospective client evaluate whether that particular lawyer will be a good fit for that particular client. Prospective clients in Massachusetts looking for a lawyer for Wills, Living Wills, Health Care Proxies, Trusts, Guardians for Minor Children and other pieces of an overall estate plan can read up on my blog, check out the DGVE law website, Facebook page, read this blog, and then call DGVE law's Client Liaison, Astrid at 781-740-0848 x.2 for more information to help decide whether it makes sense to schedule an appointment to meet with me. If it does, she'll help schedule it and then when we sit down it can be a productive meeting leading closer to actually having all your ducks in a row instead of just finding out whether you might want to get started working with me.
And forget the idea that this is all something you can do in just a couple hours total! If you want to do it right and make it yours, don't wait until the week before you leave for a vacation and are thinking about that plane ride or just as you're preparing for an elective surgery to call. Please don't wait until you are already diagnosed with a serious illness or your loved one is starting to lose some mental capacity. Doing so just makes it what we in the profession refer to as "crisis planning" and there are consequences (and may be premiums for the rush) at that point. Instead prepare to invest some time and valuable financial resources while you are healthy, well, and there is time to do it right. Choose the right attorney for you and your family then trust her to use her extensive educational training and her professional and personal experience and continuing professional education as well as to call on her professional colleagues as resources when necessary to do all the heavy mental and physical lifting for you so you can go about living your life and enjoying your family now worry free. You and your family are worth it.