• September 2014

What Is Estate Planning? Four Essential Ideas to Embrace

By Lisa Hughes
Attorney and Partner,
Yates Campbell & Hoeg LLP

When it comes to explaining the basics of estate planning to my clients and friends, I liken it to getting a new hairstyle. When I’m ready for a new do:

  • I ask my friends where they get their hair done.
  • I pay attention to trends and observe how other people wear their hair—then I consider which styles might best suit me.
  • I do my research, looking at style magazines, movies, and any other place where people have great hairdos.
  • Eventually, I pick a professional and seek their advice and services.

Throughout the entire research and planning process, I ask a lot of questions because my goal is to learn as much as possible about the benefits, expense, and maintenance involved with various options. In the end, I am an informed consumer—and, most importantly, I understand my role in the process of achieving the ideal hairstyle, including its initial cost and its subsequent maintenance.

Does this process sound logical to you?

It should. And while a fashionable haircut isn’t nearly as dramatic as creating a plan to protect your family if you die or become disabled, thinking about it in a similar manner should make the process easier to conceptualize and work through.

Here are four steps to consider when creating an estate plan:

1. Provide your attorney with as much information as possible about your goals, your family’s needs, and your financial status.

There are numerous ways to gather data, including using worksheets that are available from financial advisors, estate planning lawyers, and the Internet. Don’t get overly caught up in the format of how you’ll share the information.

The goal is to list:

  • All of the people with whom you want to share your benefits (your beneficiaries),
  • The assets and liabilities you have,
  • Any special circumstances that might exist, and
  • The names and contact information of your agents should you need them to step in and take care of you, your loved ones, your assets, your creditors—or some combination of all of the above.

2. Set a deadline to complete the datasheet.

I recommend that you schedule the meeting to discuss your estate plan for a date that’s two or three weeks after you begin the datasheet. This provides a reasonable amount of time to gather the information.

And yes, I know: The pressures of modern-day life, and the fact that it’s hard to think about dying, both lend themselves to procrastination. It never surprises me when a client doesn’t end up completing the datasheet until the night before our meeting or wants to postpone the meeting because the “homework” is not complete. (To be honest, I have been guilty of both of these sins in taking care of my own personal business, so no judgments here.)

Nonetheless, I have found that a deadline, however movable it is, seems effective in encouraging most people to complete the datasheet so that the raw data is available. That’s key because it allows clients to move on to the next stage of estate planning.

3. Step back and take pride in what you’ve accomplished in your life.

In my decades of experience as an estate planner, I have routinely found that completing the datasheet is cathartic for clients. I think you will find, too, that the datasheet contains a good summary of where you are in your life, as well as where you are as a couple.

I guarantee that when you look at your datasheet, you will be amazed at how much you have achieved. Be proud!

4. Consult a professional.

Yes, several online options allow you to create an estate plan without engaging an attorney, but I don’t advise it. The problem is not that the software document or form is invalid or incorrect. It’s that one standardized form rarely fits everyone’s needs.

When making your decision, here’s are some facts to consider:

  • Realize that when planning for what happens to your estate, what is at stake is whether a particular document achieves your specific goals, based on your unique mix of assets, liabilities, special circumstances, and state and federal laws, including tax laws.
  • Do your research and find an attorney who has the skills to provide advice and is willing to educate you so that you can make the decisions that will work best.
  • Make sure to consider and analyze your long-term goals, and develop a formal document in conjunction with your attorney’s advice.

I advise my clients to make a final decision about key estate matters only after they consult their own moral compass. Often it’s wise to seek the sound advice of several trusted advisors—including key friends, family members, and other professionals, such as accountants and financial advisors.

The Bottom Line

With the right team in place, you will likely walk away from the estate planning experience with a comprehensive understanding of what you want for your family, any risks associated with the plan, and the costs and maintenance requirements of the plan going forward.

And remember that, just like that once-perfect haircut, over time the estate plan may need a tweak—or even a complete makeover. However, I have yet to meet a client who doesn’t feel more secure in knowing that their affairs are in order, no matter what the future holds.

About Lisa Hughes

Attorney Lisa M. Hughes is experienced at preparing wills and trusts, powers of attorney, guardianships, and conservatorships; in administering estates of decedents and incapacitated individuals; and in the related tax and asset-protection planning. Her particular areas of focus include succession planning for closely held businesses, same-sex couples, and incapacitated beneficiaries, as well as certain elder-law challenges and trusts for those with special needs.

A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, Hughes is licensed in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, and has more than two decades of experience in estates, trusts, and wealth-planning.

Additionally, Hughes is a member of the Board of Governors of the Trusts and Estates Section of the Virginia State Bar; she is a Public Safety Trainer with the Commonwealth Autism Service; and she serves as legal counsel to Spectrum Housing Foundation, a tax-exempt organization that facilitates support for disabled adults.

Contact Lisa Hughes by email.