A majority of Americans donít execute the proper documents to put their affairs in order before they die. This is primarily due to a widespread lack of understanding about the consequences of failing to make an estate plan. Most people genuinely want to ensure their spouses, partners, children, pets, and other loved ones will be provided for after their death. However, it is easy to procrastinate about making a will or living trust. As a result, the will or trust never gets made, despite the best of intentions.
While the news media has publicized some famous lawsuits over the right to remove a person from life support, the right to inherit a family fortune, and child custody disputes after one parent dies, these cases rarely make front page news. People tend to assume these types of estate planning issues will never affect their own lives. Just as we donít educate people about financial planning in school, there is also a lack of education about what happens when someone becomes incompetent without having a power of attorney in place or what happens when a parent dies without a will.
Another common reason many Americans donít have an estate plan is the perception that wills and trusts are exclusively for the wealthy. You may think making an estate plan is only necessary if your estate will be subject to hefty estate taxes or you are planning a large charitable gift to fund an endowment. As many personal representatives and executors of estates can attest, that simply isnít true. Disputes frequently erupt over even small inheritances, often for emotional rather than financial reasons. Whether it is an heir seeking to hang on to the family farm or an adult child who doesnít want property to pass to a stepparent, estate litigation affects many middle class families. Legal fees and costs can quickly consume a small estate, sometimes leaving nothing for the deceased personís intended beneficiaries.
Estate Planning Involves Difficult Decisions
When you begin the process of making a will, health care directives or other estate planning documents, you will find there are many questions you have to answer. These are questions no one can answer for you, such as how should I distribute my property and do I want to be removed from life support if I am in a persistent vegetative state? As any experienced estate planning lawyer will tell you, people often have great difficulty making these decisions. They usually procrastinate and put their estate planning materials aside with the intention of dealing with it later. Since the majority of Americans die without a will or living trust, we know that too often, later never comes. While hiring a lawyer to help you make an estate plan is beneficial for many reasons, one of the most important is ensuring you work through the necessary decisions and get it done. Without an attorney, many people fail to complete their estate planning documents, leaving a morass of problems for those they leave behind.
If you have family issues or donít have anyone you can rely on to carry out your last wishes, it can be even more challenging to finalize your estate plan. For example, some parents want to leave their property to their children in unequal shares, due to loans made to one child, support provided by another, etc. In some cases, a parent may even want to disinherit an heir, such as an adult child. But putting these decisions in writing is hard for most parents. If you are trying to decide whom to appoint as guardian of your children or caretaker of your pets, you may find you have no ideal options. If you donít have a reliable person willing to assume the responsibility, you may not know how to proceed. Some people are unable to leave instructions about their funeral services because they are uncomfortable thinking about where to be buried or whether to be cremated. As hard as these decisions are to make, the outcome will be better for everyone if you make them rather than leaving them to the courts or your heirs to resolve.
If you have attempted to make an estate plan but encountered this type of obstacle, you will benefit from including an attorney in your estate planning process. Your lawyer can explain how other clients in your situation have dealt with a particular issue and provide solutions to complex problems. If you need someone to prod you to work through the details of your plan, a good estate planning attorney will be your ally. Communicate with your lawyer openly with any concerns you have about your estate. For information on how to choose the right estate planning lawyer, see Finding an Attorney.
Things You Can Control About What Happens When You Die
Most people do not realize how much they can actually control about what happens when they die. While much of what happens depends on other people, state laws regarding estates, trusts, and probate allow you to exercise control over many aspects of what happens when you die. By using financial accounts and insurance products, and prepaying for certain items, you can also exercise control over things such as how your family will be impacted by your death. To learn what you can control, see what happens when you die.
Estate Planning Costs
One major obstacle to making an estate plan is cost. Too often, people assume they cannot afford to meet with a lawyer. But protecting family assets, providing support for a surviving spouse, clarifying last wishes, and planning for long term care are important regardless of your budget. Fortunately, there are many do it yourself estate planning books and free estate planning forms that allow you to create the most essential estate planning documents even if you do not have a lot to spend.However, those who try to make an estate plan without an attorney frequently make costly mistakes, and in some cases their estate planning documents are unenforceable. If you cannot afford to have your estate planning documents drafted by a professional, you should still pay a lawyer for a fundamental analysis of your estate so you have guidance on the most essential issues. Also, many attorneys offer a free consultation so you can learn about the typical cost of estate planning services in your area.