Seasoned estate planning lawyers say phone calls to their offices are usually triggered by grief or postcard-worthy adventures.
People call a lawyer after an unexpected death or a week before a parents-only vacation, says Sarah Jael Dion, a Seattle-based estate planning and probate lawyer at Dion Law PLLC.
“While everyone who calls says they just need a simple will, the truth is that it takes longer than a week to create a legal will, and a will is just one part of a larger set of legal documents that helps protect families both before and after a parent’s death,” says Dion.
While negative and positive life events often provoke people to look into writing a will, local author Chanel Reynolds has made it her mission to make creating an estate plan an ordinary item on any adult’s agenda. After her own husband suffered fatal injuries during an early-evening bike ride, she learned that a little preplanning can help make a hard time go a bit easier. Now, Reynolds wants everyone to know that writing a will isn’t as difficult or overwhelming as they might think, and she wants to help parents get started on the process.
“A basic estate planning packet includes three main documents. A will specifies guardianship for your kids and pets, who gets your assets, and what’s going to happen to your stuff. Some also decide to create a trust in addition to their will. The living will or advance healthcare directive is for your end-of-life wishes and specifies things like whether or how long you’d want to be kept on life support. The third one is a power of attorney that designates people who can make medical and/or financial decisions for you should you be unable to make decisions for yourself, for example, during recovery from a serious illness or extensive surgery,” says Reynolds, author of “What Matters Most: The Get Your Shit Together Guide to Wills, Money, Insurance and Life’s What-ifs.”
DIY or hire a lawyer?
If life were like the movies, you could write a will on a cocktail napkin, initial it with your partner over a beer and slide it into a drawer, says Dion.
“But that’s not a will: It’s just a cocktail napkin. While I’m biased, I find that writing your will yourself is a lot like doing your taxes yourself,” she says. “Using the online software is better than doing nothing, but the problem is you don’t know what you don’t know. There’s a reason that LegalZoom.com has a disclaimer that says, ‘We cannot provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion or recommendation about possible legal rights.’”
Still, Reynolds points out that many of the online services are perfectly adequate for people with uncomplicated family situations and finances. She notes that the online estate planning packets at LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer and Quicken WillMaker usually cost a few hundred dollars.
But what makes a life complicated? That’s where an attorney comes in handy. “You’re paying for expertise — for someone to look at your family situation and finances and help spot a future possible disaster. Estate planning also brings up a lot of things people are trying not to talk about: ‘Do I trust my brother enough to raise my child?’ ‘Do I want my kid moved out of state?’” says Dion. “I’m grateful to be able to identify problems before they are problems and help clients come up with a plan so there’s no disaster. That’s the most pleasing part of being a lawyer.”
While you can surf the internet and ponder price points that fit within your budget, Dion recommends reaching out to your peers and asking for recommendations. Try parent Listservs and neighborhood social-networking websites, too. The price range for estate planning is wide, running from roughly $500 to $5,000 or more.
“Finding a lawyer who charges a flat fee for estate planning is a good way to go,” counsels Dion. “Still, lawyers at some firms are required to charge an hourly rate [usually north of $300 an hour]. Many of the best estate planners I know work at these law firms, and they do an incredible job.”
Make your estate plan — and keep it updated
Once you’ve done the hard work of picking an online estate plan or finding a lawyer, the tricky work of picking guardians for your children begins. Some lawyers have people fill out questionnaires that include this topic before the appointment, but this decision might be why it takes more than a week to write a will.
If you decide on guardianship when your kids are little, you’re basically choosing new parents.
“You want a lawyer who is going to talk with you about your family and get their arms around the whole emotional and social situation so they can help guide you through the guardianship decision,” says Dion.
Guardianship decisions are one reason why Dion calls a will a time-sensitive document. “If you decide on guardianship when your kids are little, you’re basically choosing new parents. By middle school, guardianship priorities are different, shifting to keeping the kids in the same city or school and picking someone who’d make a really good auntie or uncle. By the time kids are teenagers, that kid-cake is baked, so once again parents might need to rethink their wills,” says Dion.
Upon signing your first estate plan, congratulate yourself, but plan on reviewing this document every five years or so, or after life events such as the birth of a child, death of a named guardian or fund manager, divorce, changes to the tax code or big changes in financial circumstances. Rest assured, though: You can make many of these updates as amendments, without triggering the expense of a complete estate plan do-over.