Holiday trip planned? Put your mind at rest with an estate plan

Frequently I have clients who come to me for an estate plan in the weeks and months before going on a trip.  Because they are going into unfamiliar territory, they want all of their affairs in order prior to their departure.  While I will be pleased with any reason that gets someone in to prepare their estate plan, it seems to me that the dangers of everyday life are high enough that we don’t have to wait until we go on a trip to be worried about our affairs.

I used to hear that most accidents occur close to home, and I would guess that this is still the norm.  With car accidents (please stop texting and driving!) as well as holiday mishaps, there is plenty of reason to be nervous about accidents at home.  So why wait?

One of the reasons I hear about why folks wait to do their estate plan is that they think it’s going to be difficult and time-consuming.  They don’t know what decisions to make or who to turn to.  With my clients, just about everyone says, without prompting from me, that the process is extremely easy, far simpler than they expected, and that I helped them throughout the process.  What many of my clients don’t understand is that it is part of my job to walk you through the process, ensure you understand all the options available to you, and help you to make the right decisions for your family.  Now, I don’t make your decisions – of course not! – but I can go over the advantages and disadvantages of the various options, or help give you things to think about in making critical decisions.

And because of those things, it’s far easier than you may think it is.  So don’t wait until you have to go on a trip.  Do something to put your mind at ease this holiday season – get an estate plan and put your affairs in order. Use the link at the right to schedule your no-cost consultation with us today!

An attorney versus online estate planning: Legal Zoom can and WILL hurt you

I see Legal Zoom is being sued for not preparing an estate plan that did what it said it would.  Banks and financial institutions would not accept the Legal Zoom documents to fund the individual’s trust.  As I always tell my clients, your estate plan is not worth the paper it’s printed on unless and until you fund your trust.  And the Legal Zoom documents?  Were seen to be unacceptable to the banks and financial institutions.  In addition, the information given by Legal Zoom on estate planning is supposedly designed to give users a “general understanding of the law” but “is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up to date.

Really?  Legal Zoom can’t even guarantee that the “general understanding” is correct?  Do you really want to trust everything you’ve worked for – your assets, your estate, and your family, to a company that can’t even get basic law correct?

Further, Legal Zoom tells you, on their website, that 80% of people who fill in blank forms do so incorrectly.  Legal Zoom is, in effect, saying to their users they they are very likely to do the forms wrong, but they should do so anyway.  Why would you do this?  I have seen it time and again, when I send out my intake forms to my estate planning consultations.  Nearly everyone marks something that ultimately is incorrect after we’ve had some time to talk about it.

Finally, a lawyer in Minnesota went through the process of getting a will using Legal Zoom.  You can see his video here.  What is enlightening is that the will was packaged well, and was better than the lawyer expected.  But the reality is that there were MANY provisions, standard, important provisions, that were left out of the will.  A will is a pretty basic document for an attorney to complete, and Legal Zoom couldn’t even get it right.  I won’t go into the detail  of the missing provisions, but suffice to say there were a number of critical paragraphs missing.

Haven’t you worked too hard to leave your estate plan to chance?  Why is it a better option to save $1,500 on an online estate plan, just to cost your family – your closest loved ones – tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in untangling your messed up estate plan?!  I know times are tough, and we’re all looking to save dollars where we can.  But this is about your entire life.  Do not work your entire life to screw it up in the end.

We have an automated estate planning process that allows clients to save up to 50% on their estate plans by inputting their information in an online format.  Their answers, and indeed their entire estate plan, is be personally examined, reviewed, and assembled personally by us, but because of the online aspect, it will be at a significantly lower cost.  This option helps to combine the needs of my clients who know they need an estate plan but want a lower cost, but aren’t willing to risk everything just to save a few dollars.

Click here to access our online estate planning portal.

Top five excuses to avoid preparing your estate plan…

1. I don’t want to think about it. No one wants to think about getting older, becoming incapacitated, or leaving this world. We all believe that we’re going to live forever. But we’re not. In fact, we’re all going to go sometime, so denying that it’s happening at all is not going to stop it. Chances are, too, that you DO in fact think about it, and your thoughts take on the quality of worrying (if you’re not thinking about it now, believe me, you will as you get older). Worrying about it is not going to protect you and your family; only doing something – your estate plan – will stop the worry and give you peace of mind. If you’re going to be thinking about it anyway, why not just get your estate plan done?
2. I don’t have time. You might think that preparing your estate plan will take hours and hours, involve multiple meetings, and generally deprive you of family time, work time, and free time. Not so! Most of my estate plans are completed in two one-hour meetings. Yes, there are serious questions that you have to answer, but you’ve certainly already thought about most of them and they’re really not all that hard to answer anyway. All told? Two, maybe three hours total.
3. I don’t have money. If you leave your estate to probate, then your heirs are not going to receive up to 10% of your gross estate, and in fact may be PAYING to transfer your property. You’ll be leaving your family tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars LESS than if you would have had an estate plan. Why wouldn’t you spend a quarter to save $100?
4. I don’t have enough money to need an estate plan. A estate with just $600,000 (think house, life insurance and some retirement) can save nearly $100,000 by creating an estate plan over going through probate. Could you stand to save $100,000? Is your family worth it?
5. I trust my family to do what’s right. Putting the decisions in the hands of your family is more of a burden than anything else. Once something happens to you, your loved ones will be shocked and grieving (you are still shocked when someone passes, even when you’re expecting it). Allow them to grieve – allow them the time and space. Don’t add to their suffering by also making them guess what you would have wanted.

What are you waiting for? Contact us today to schedule your free estate planning consultation.

Avoid these shortcuts in estate planning & save your assets, protect your family, & leave a legacy

We’re all looking to save money and get our to do list done as quickly and easily as possible.  But when it comes to estate planning, quick and cheap shortcuts can end up not only costing you in the long run, but can hurt both your family and your legacy.

For example, if you decide to forego an estate plan for your real property, and instead opt for joint tenancy, then you are at best just delaying the probate process, and at worst exposing your home to complete loss in your lifetime. With joint tenancy, there may not be any need for probate or transfer proceedings at the death of the first spouse (just some simple) paperwork, at the death of the survivor, the property goes into probate, which can take years and cost up to 10% of the gross estate value, which can be in the tens of thousands of dollars even for estates with just a house – even one with substantial debt.  Putting a child on title to the property does not solve this problem, and can lead to your child’s creditors seizing the house, the inability to undo the transfer at a later date when needed, a loss of control over the disposition of the house, more complications in transfer at the survivor’s death, and more.

Another shortcut is either being incomplete or too vague in your estate plan documentation.  If you have a living trust, it must be funded completely.  It does not serve you or anyone else to leave “just that one account” outside the trust since it ‘has so little in it.’  Why leave a small account – or a large one – outside the trust and make it more difficult for your family to transfer it? It’s possible then that the bank will just get your money since it will be too much trouble to transfer the account outside the trust.  In addition, if you have provisions for the distribution of your estate, make sure you have alternate provisions in case your beneficiaries do not outlive you.  For example, if you are leaving everything to your children, make sure you have a provision for who gets your estate if the airplane goes down and you all pass at the same time.

There are a lot of aspects of estate planning that can easily be completed improperly, costing you, your family, and the estate you worked your life to build. Estate planning is not the place to look for a quick or cheap solution, but rather to take the time to ensure that all you’ve worked for is left just the way you want it.

Your pending California divorce case: What to do with your will/trust or estate plan

I have been thinking more about my posting about your will, and I felt it needed more to make it complete. Specifically, IF you have a divorce case currently, what can you do NOW to protect yourself and your children? Divorce cases can last for years. Yes, unfortunately this is true, so we have to hope for the best (a speedy and as-painless-as-possible case) and plan for the worst (an endless case). So if you have a case and the ATROs (automatic restraining orders in California divorce) prevent you from changing your will (or estate plan), here are some things you can do.

First, take advantage of the ability to sever joint tenancy (JT). The ATROs allow you to sever joint tenancy with simply NOTICE to the other party. Sever this JT and should something happen to you, you have the ability to give your half of any real property (a house, for example) to someone other than your estranged spouse.

Second, have a conversation. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer might be telling you never to talk to your estranged spouse. I disagree with this family law case philosophy because (as one of our local judges used to say) YOU are in the best position to come to a resolution of your case. If you stop talking to each other, then hostility can grow and you may be likely to fight more. Now, this approach works well for the lawyer, who gets to funnel ALL of your issues at $450 an hour! It’s better on you, your relationship, your pocketbook, and your case if you’re able to talk to each other. Talk about changing your will so each of you can make an estate plan that provides for your own property to go to the individuals you choose instead of each other.

Third, if you can’t have an informal conversation, bring it up in a formal setting. Whether it’s a meeting with your lawyers, a court conference, or if you add it to the issues to be raised at a hearing, make time to discuss these issues so they’re at least out in the open.

Post-death process with a living trust and estate plan

Yesterday we talked about the probate process, and what happens after a loved ones dies. Today, let’s go through that same process, but this time, our loved one has an estate plan and has put all of their affairs in order before they passes.  Remembering what we went over yesterday, here is how it would go with an estate plan:

In the hours following the death, you go to the funeral home, and the director tells you that your loved one came in years ago and chose their own service, with music, readings, flowers, and everything all picked out and paid for.  You don’ t have to decide a THING except what day to do it.  Oh, and your loved one already planned – and paid for – the life celebration party afterwards.  There are no decisions to make – the director tells you to go home, grieve, and take care of your family.

You get to the house, and you already know where the estate plan binder is.  Because you’ve already been over it, you know there’s a letter right inside that’s intended to be instructions for you on what you need to do.  You go to it, and feeling overwhelmed by everything, with the letters swimming on the page in front of you, you decide to just call the lawyer – me.  What do I tell you?  I say – there’s nothing you have to do right now.  You, take care of your family, grieve, and get back to me in a couple weeks – if you still need me – when you’re ready to move forward.

Those early hours, days and weeks are precious – precious time to be with your loved ones, to remember and celebrate to one who has died, and to work on our own processing of what’s happened and what it means to us.  An estate plan gives you that time.

When it comes time to assess the assets, pay the debts and transfer the property, the process:

  1. Involves no lawyers and no court;
  2. The fees are overall generally less than $100 in total; and
  3. Takes a few days to a month, depending on how quickly YOU work

Because you have all of the instructions, you don’t need to call a lawyer. The process is simple and quick, and costs almost nothing.

Does that sound like something you’d prefer to have from your loved one than the probate example?

Then, I ask, WHY are YOU not doing this for YOUR loved ones?  How could you not, knowing now what you do? What are you waiting for?

When to update your estate plan

I am often asked when an estate plan should be updated, and in fact I have written on it before.  But it is important to revisit from time to time, particularly when there are new estate laws as there are now.  In general terms, an estate plan should be reviewed in two instances:

  1. Each time there has been a birth, death, marriage, divorce, acquisition or disposition of property or a business in the family, and
  2. Every 1-2 years.

By “review” I don’t mean we need to dig up the binder (you do have a binder, right?), and pore over it, page by page.  No.  What I mean is that we need to think about what is in our estate plan.  You should know it in detail because your lawyer explained it so well to you during the process!  So, you want to review who your beneficiaries are, and whether the property distribution you’ve selected still is appropriate.  You want to review who is your successor trustee/executor, as well as who acts as your agent on your powers of attorney.  Have you changed your mind about your advance directive?  These are the questions you should ask yourself, and it really should not take more than 20-30 minutes.  Go through any changes in your family, and see if those changes, or anything else that has happened in the last year or two, make you want to change your estate plan.

In addition, if you have created your estate plan in the last five years, you may want to contact an estate planning attorney now to make sure your estate plan is still the most appropriate for you given the new laws and tax exemption.

In any event, if you have an estate plan that was created before 2008, or powers of attorney created before 2003, you really need to get an update, or at least an opinion on whether an update is necessary.  I don’t know about other estate planning attorneys, but I don’t charge for an estate plan review, even for those estate plans I’ve not created myself.  So what do you have to lose?