When considering if you need to hire an estate planning lawyer, consider this—estate planning is serious business. One wrong word or one missing signature can change the entire intent of a will or trust.
Aside from this, there are many reasons to convince you to hire a qualified estate attorney. Here are several that might persuade you to have an expert draft your estate plan.
State Laws Are Complex
State laws are particular about what can and can't be in a will, trust, or medical or financial power of attorney. Laws also dictate who can and can't witness these documents and determine what formalities must be observed when they are signed.
Much of the time, states determine who can or can't serve as a personal representative, trustee, health care surrogate or attorney-in-fact.
While the U.S. Constitution dictates that legal documents should be recognized between states, some states do not fully honor the reciprocity laws—especially if there are different forms and criteria. Make sure you have your estate plan reviewed by an attorney licensed in the state you reside in.
For example, a personal representative in Florida must either be related to you by blood, marriage or otherwise be qualified by state laws. They must also be a state resident at the time of your death.
Regardless of this law, many people still try to place someone outside of these categories as a representative. These non-residents and non-relatives aren't allowed to serve in Florida.
Working with a qualified estate planning attorney helps avoid costly and straightforward mistakes such as this.
You Need an Indisputable Plan
Planning for the inevitable can be challenging, especially if you're unsure of what you need. You know what assets you have that you would like to pass on. There may be relatives or people that you would like to pass something on to (or not). You might want to set something up for a younger relative to access later in life, but give another immediate access to whatever you leave them.
There are financial tools available online that allow you to do all of this and more. However, when online, you can't be sure that the advice you're getting is sound or that the documents are valid.
Your plan has to be rock-solid and indisputable—an estate planning attorney can do that for you. They know the valid documents, financial instruments, wording and procedures you need to put your financial plan into action and make it stand up in court.
An Estate Attorney Can Update Your Plan
Once you have a plan and have had an estate lawyer help you put it together, it needs to be continuously updated. Many people experience a significant change in their life every three to six months. Your situation might change, or your beneficiaries' lives might take a turn.
At a minimum, you should take inventory of your assets and circumstances once a year to make sure your estate plan is up-to-date.
Your estate plan should adapt to the changes in the lives of any of the people involved. For example, if six months ago your only daughter ran off to Vegas to marry the local bad-boy that no one approves of, you should update your estate plan—especially if you've left her some valuable assets.
Changes don't necessarily need to be adverse to update your estate—maybe your daughter decided that instead of getting married right out of high school, she would pursue a degree in business so she could start a consulting agency. You could update your estate to leave her some money to help her fund the company when she does graduate.
You could make her portion of the estate depend upon conditions. You could change the plan to give her the money to start her business or purchase a home, depending on the route she takes.
Your Beneficiaries Will Save Money
If you skip using an estate attorney when planning how your assets will be distributed and instead use forms found on the internet or in a do-it-yourself book, you might end up costing your family more money.
Your state's court system may not recognize your do-it-yourself documents. Even if the courts do recognize them, you might have missed some important ones that cause delays.
There is nothing wrong with doing the forms and plan yourself, but it is best to have an estate planning attorney review them to make sure everything is in order.
Your beneficiaries could end up spending thousands of dollars to work with a qualified estate planning attorney afterward, fixing any errors. This could put them in a financial bind, especially if your estate were designed to keep them functioning financially after your death.
Estate Attorneys Can Sort out Complex Situations
Take a look at your life and your assets to see if you fit into one or more of the following categories:
- You're in a second (or later) marriage
- You own one or more businesses
- You own real estate in more than one state
- You have a disabled family member
- You have minor children
- You have problem children
- You don't have any children
- You want to leave some or all of your estate to charity
- You have substantial assets in 401(k)s or IRAs
- You were recently divorced
- You recently lost a spouse or other family member
- You have a taxable estate for federal or state estate tax purposes
If one or more of these situations apply to you, then you'll need the counseling and advice of an experienced estate planning attorney to create your estate planning documents. Otherwise, it may be a probate lawyer, your state's revenue department, or the IRS that will receive the largest chunk of your estate.