Are you having trouble completing or updating your estate plan, although you are convinced you should? Maybe you have a referral to an attorney recommended by a friend or other advisor, but you haven’t yet scheduled the first meeting? Or you have attended the first meeting with your estate planning attorney, but you can’t quite seem to finish your action list for the next meeting?
Estate planning is not the top of anyone’s “to do” list. As an estate planning attorney, part of my job is to help my clients complete their estate plans. No one intends to delay the process, but many times the process stalls.
Here are some ideas that have helped my clients cross the finish line and enjoy the relief that a completed plan brings. See if they work for you!
- Start the Process. As with many goals, the first step is the hardest. Schedule your first meeting with a qualified professional, and show up for the meeting. Do the homework requested by the attorney if you can, and don’t cancel if you cannot. If you must cancel due to an emergency, reschedule the meeting at the same time you cancel. Turn yourself over to the process and let the attorney lead you through it.
- Ask for an Action List. At the first meeting, ask your lawyer to provide you with a list of items you need to handle so that the process can move forward. If the list seems long, ask which ones are absolutely essential for the attorney to prepare initial draft documents for your review, and tackle those items first.
- Ask for Advice. If a topic seems difficult for you to analyze, ask your lawyer for input. We work with clients daily on these issues, so we know what options you have and what many others choose to do in your situation. This is not to say that you should do what others do, because your plan should suit you and your family, but the information will give you a frame of reference and help you make up your mind.
- Narrow the Issues. Estate planning requires a number of decisions, and some will feel harder than others. Go through the general topics with your lawyer and resolve all the open issues that you can. You will likely be left with a handful of topics that stump you, ones that will require further thought. This list will be much shorter than the initial list of questions, so forge through the first round in a determined way and then focus on the issues that need more thought.
- Plan for the Next Five Years. Remember that this estate plan should address the realities as you know them now, and cover the next five years. Estate plans should be reviewed at least every three to five years, and sooner if a major life event occurs. Laws, people and circumstances change over time. You don’t need to predict and plan for every possibility that the future may bring–instead, plan for the present. Plans can (and should) be changed.
- Request Initial Drafts. Once you have responded to as many questions as you can, request initial draft documents. It’s easy for us to prepare drafts with blanks for the open issues. The more you can decide up front, the better it is in one sense; but if you find yourself resisting the process, looking at initial drafts is very helpful.
- Meet with Your Attorney Again. Foundational estate plans can often be completed in two sessions with the attorney–one meeting where most decisions are made for the plan, and a second meeting to sign final documents. Your attorney should send you drafts of your new estate plan before the second meeting so you have time to review the documents and ask questions or make comments before signing. But sometimes clients leave the first meeting with so many decisions to make that draft documents can’t be adequately prepared. That’s understandable; decision-making can be difficult. If you are having trouble making all the decisions needed for your estate plan, ask your attorney if you can focus on your Advance Health Care Directive and General Durable Power of Attorney first. Request a meeting with your attorney to review drafts of these documents, which require fewer decisions than the revocable trust agreement. You will probably be able to make the necessary decisions during your meeting; or at least leave the meeting with a short list of decision points. If you can finalize and sign your powers of attorney at this meeting, this will create momentum and you will be relieved that the process is moving forward. In my experience, you will then find it easier to make the decisions needed for your revocable trust agreement and finish up your plan.
- Schedule a Final Meeting. Time managers recommend scheduling meetings as a way to move a task up your priority list. Once a meeting for your estate plan is on your calendar, try to accomplish what is needed for that meeting. If you have a vacation planned, set the final meeting prior to the vacation and use your trip as a motivator. It’s handy to have your estate plan updated before a big trip!
- Request a List of Trust Funding Reminders. Once you have created a revocable living trust and related documents that express your wishes accurately, you will need to “fund” your trust. Trust funding is the process of re-titling appropriate assets (such as your real estate, bank and brokerage accounts, and business interests) into the name of your trust. This final step can be challenging for people, not because it is difficult but because it is a series of somewhat tedious chores. I send my clients a final explanatory letter listing each recommendation I have made about funding their trust, so they can use it as a checklist and check off one item at a time.
- Keep Your Eye on the Prize. People always feel good when they finish their estate plan. You are giving a real gift to your loved ones by simplifying the process as much as you can for them. Keep this goal at the front of your mind as you work through your “to do” lists.
- Feel Good about Documenting Your Wishes! It’s hard to think about who will handle your affairs when you are unable to do so, since no one will do it as well as you do. Accept that you will not be able to find perfect solutions to the decisions you must make in your plan, and feel good about giving each decision your best guess. Your best guess will be much closer to ideal than any default that California law has for you if you do not complete a customized plan. Forget perfection, and proceed confidently with your best guesses. Congratulate yourself when you get the job done!
Creating an estate plan is extremely worthwhile, and it is only useful when completed. Select your estate planning attorney carefully, making sure you are comfortable with her or him as well as trusting her or his expertise. You will need to review your plan every few years, so find an attorney who is a good fit for you and let her or him guide you through the process, all the way to completion!