Before I started my estate planning practice, I worked for a firm handling tax resolution cases. Basically, I tried to help people who owed past due taxes to the IRS or to the state tax departments. Mostly this consisted of negotiating payment plans – allowing people or businesses to pay back past due taxes over time, but I also helped eliminate penalties and worked to reduce tax debts for the people I could help.
Sometimes I would get clients who think I should do everything, and that they do not need to be involved in working to eliminate the tax debt. I would often remind these people that I don’t have access to their financial records, bank accounts, or have any information on their company, and that I needed them to supply such information. I also would try to help the client understand that I was there to teach them how to do things, so that they would not fall behind again. My goal was to have the client learn how to do things the right way, so that the client was not dependent on me for everything. Sometimes this worked, but other times it did not, and I would have people coming back to me to solve their past due tax crisis multiple times.
When I left the tax resolution firm to start my own estate planning firm over 10 years ago, I took some of the lessons learned from that experience and applied them in my estate planning practice. I know that I cannot do everything for my clients. I am sure my clients would love me to do everything for them, but I cannot discover information not shared with me, and I cannot make decisions for my clients. I also know that after I have completed setting up an estate plan, I cannot be there at every event, or for every thing that happens along the way. Instead, I try to teach my clients what they need to know to implement their own estate plan, without needing me all the time. My practice is also limited to estate planning, and I do not handle probate matters or disputes, probate administration, or trust administration.
Certainly there are law firms that will handle everything on behalf of a client, but I have found those firms can charge double, triple, or even up to 10 times as much as I charge for my work. I would rather let my clients do what they can do, and I will handle the work better left to an attorney, to make the entire process legally correct, but also affordable.
As such, I do not do everything for my clients, but by working together, I can help you to take control of your estate plan, helping you be successful in with your own estate plan, and not relying on me all the time.
You Know Your Situation
At the risk of sounding obvious, I do not know what your life situation is, but you do. I need to ask you about what assets you have, what your family situation is like, and what you want to do with your assets. Without that information, I cannot help you create an estate plan that fits your needs, and reflects your situation. For example, if you have been married once, have two children, and just want your assets to go to your spouse and then the two kids, equally, when you pass away, that is fairly straightforward. However, if you are on a second or third marriage, have kids from each marriage, and have rental properties in six different states, then your needs are quite different from the other situation I described. Your estate planning needs are different. I need to know what your situation is before I can help design a plan that will work for you.
Not all estate plans are the same, even if the documents are called the same thing. In both situations described above, a will may be an appropriate estate planning document, but the wills will not be exactly the same. The provisions distributing assets will almost certainly be different for the two situations described above, and even if both are put into a will, the terms of the wills will not be the same. My role is to help find the correct method and documents to use in setting up your estate plan, and your role is to give me the necessary information to know what your options are. Then, I can advise you on your options and the benefits and drawbacks of said options, so you can decide which to choose. I do not choose for you, but I give you sound advice and to decide for yourself.
Once an Estate Plan is Set Up, You are in Charge
Since I specialize in estate planning, setting up the plans, but I do not handle the entire administration of a will or trust after the plan is set up, I want to help you understand what you will need to do yourself. If I draft a trust for you, I will let you know what your next steps are, whether that be funding the trust – putting assets into the trust, or administering the trust – carrying out instructions in the trust. I have some written instructions, and I have some instructions that I give verbally, and then I send you out to take the next steps. I will still be around, and I can remind people of what I told them to do, or help on an as-needed basis, but generally I know you are capable of handling your own estate plan.
Sometimes I will get a call from someone who is at a bank trying to set up an account, or someone who is trying to sell or refinance an property inside of a trust I drafted. I usually remind the person contacting me that such things are beyond the scope of what I was hired to do, even though what they are trying to do is somewhat related to the trust. I often need to remind my clients that even though I drafted a trust, that does not mean that I have agreed to do anything and everything that might possibly be related to the trust. I represent you to do the job I was hired to do, and I am not committed to do anything and everything that might possibly come up down the road.
I generally will not refuse to answer questions, but I also cannot be available for every client who has a need at the moment they need something. That is one of the limitations of being a solo estate planning attorney. I will help where I can, but I cannot be available at all times to all people. If you need help with something, I am open to you asking if I can help. I frequently can help with matters that seem beyond what you can, or want to do. However, I am rarely able to immediately grant such requests, as I am frequently helping other clients accomplish their goals, and I cannot drop what I am doing for something outside of what I agreed to do. I want to help, and I give instructions so that you can help yourself, but my help is available within my schedule and cannot always accommodate an emergency or immediate time frame.
Carrying Out the Estate Plan
I had the son of a client call me the other day asking how to set up a testamentary trust through the probate process. He told me the bank was asking for some document (he could not remember which one) and that the bank told him I should provide it, since I was the attorney who drafted the will for his mother. I had to remind the person that drafting the documents, and carrying them out, were separate responsibilities, and simply because I had drafted the documents did not mean that I was willing to take on the responsibility of carrying them out. This client was particularly whiny about how he thought he deserved my help and that I owed him help because I drafted the documents. I pointed him to the resources he needed to reference to carry out his mother’s instructions in the will, gave him the contact information for my friends who handle probate administration, and sent him on to an attorney who could help him better than I could.
I wasn’t trying to dismiss this client, and I did give him some resources to help him carry out the instruction contained in the will, but he had come up to the limits of my practice. I do not handle probate administration, trust administration, and I do not represent parties who want to fight things out in probate. I have plenty of friends who practice in these areas, and I am happy to refer clients to them, it is just not something that I do. I do know many of the rules regarding how probate works, or how administration will go. But if you are looking for me to do everything for you, then you will be disappointed.
I can be a resource for my clients, pointing them in the right direction, giving them the contact information for attorneys who can help them with what they need, but I cannot do everything for them. I draft estate plans that are easy to understand. The named personal representative of a will or successor trustee of a trust can carry out instructions in a will or a trust with a minimum of intervention by me or any other attorney. I give my clients instruction so they can carry out things on their own and don’t need to rely on me for everything.
Your Estate Plan is Yours, After All
After all, it is your estate plan, not mine. I can help create your estate plan that meets your needs, based on the information you give me, within the parameters of the law. I can help you know what to do next, and I can assist you along the way, but I won’t be able to do everything for you. Your estate plan is yours, so I help you take charge of your own estate plan, so that it works for you!