Estate Planning is too often misunderstood. “Where” is a big question for families wanting to get started. First, where should you go to do your Estate Planning? This is a simple one to answer.
Ideally, you should go to an attorney with a practice focused specifically on Estate Planning (or the related practice areas of Estate Planning, Elder Law, and Taxation). This seems like a "no brainer" but you would be surprised how many people try to tackle this complex work using DIY online apps or attorneys who practice in areas of law that have no connection to estates and trusts.
The laws change frequently enough that you will want an attorney who is committed to doing rigorous continuing education specific to estates, trusts, taxation, and elder law. The minimum requirement for Continuing Legal Education (“CLE”) in many states is 12 hours per year, in any area of law. In fact, some states have no CLE requirement whatsoever.
On the other hand, there are organizations or certifications that require a good deal more than the typical CLE and require that it be focused in Estate Planning or related fields. For example, the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys requires 36 hours of CLE in Estate Planning and related fields of Elder Law and Taxation. You are much more likely to find the know-how you need to achieve your goals with an attorney whose primary focus is Estate Planning.
We all know that life comes at you fast...circumstances can change on a dime. So you also want an attorney who will check in with you on a regular basis to stay abreast of changes that may occur in your family over the course of a year (a new home purchased, another baby born, a child with special needs, a divorce, a spouse becoming disabled). Estate Planning addresses these issues and many more. You want to establish a relationship with an attorney who will be with your family for more than just the drawing up of a set of documents. You are starting a relationship that should serve your family for decades.
People can be "pennywise and pound foolish" thinking they are saving money by using software or forms they find online to DIY their estate plan. But beware! What you don't know CAN hurt you (and you may not find out until its too late). When it comes to knowing the difference between a “per stirpes” and a “per capita” distribution, or when a Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax applies, those online forms aren't likely to have many answers for you.
There are a zillion pitfalls lying in wait for the unwary would-be drafter their own Estate Plan. If you needed brain surgery, you wouldn’t go to your internist to perform it, nor would you attempt to do it yourself, following a YouTube video. Likewise, it is foolhardy to try to do your own Estate Planning.
Another question related to “where” is, what to do when you move from one state to another. Typically, you should review your Estate Plan periodically for changes in your circumstances, assets, and goals. However, if you move between states, you'll need to review your plan in that new state as soon as you move. Some of the laws are certain to be different from one state to next. This is the case even if you’ve only moved across a state line. For example, the new state may have community property laws where your old state did not. There could be differences in a whole host of other laws, as well. So, if you move, be sure to review your Estate Plan with a qualified Estate Planning attorney in your new state.
Future articles in this series will address other questions about Estate Planning. Below are links to prior articles in this series.