It is no secret that I offer a free initial consultation to everyone who is looking to set up an estate plan. The offer is on my website, and I tell everyone who calls me that I offer a free initial consultation. What may not be so clear is what happens during that initial consultation. Sometimes I have someone who thinks the initial consultation is a time for them to ask any question they want about the law and have me answer it for them.
Others think that they can present me with whatever situation they have, and want me to give them free legal advice on what course of action they should take. Still others want me to tell them what to do. None of those approaches leads to a particularly effective meeting.
This blog will discuss what happens at an initial consultation: what do you need to decide and what information do I need from you. I previously wrote a blog about how to NOT work with your estate planning attorney – this blog discusses how to ensure we can work well together.
At an initial consultation, I will gather information from a potential client. I have a lot of questions that I ask to prompt thinking and to discover what is important to you in your estate plan. Based on your answers to my questions, and my answers to questions you may have, we can discuss the options for an estate plan and you can decide what you want to do in your estate plan.
There are certain choices that you need to make for yourself, and certain choices we can discuss together. Once we have discussed what you want to do in your estate plan and the options available to you, I leave the choice of how to proceed up to you. I cannot decide what you want to do for you, despite how often it seems people want me to choose for them.
What Information Do You Need to Provide to Your Estate Planning Attorney?
Almost every person I talk to asks me what types of information they need to bring to the initial appointment. Oftentimes they will ask me if I need statements from all of their accounts, or account numbers. I generally respond that I will need a list of assets and the approximate value of those assets, but I don’t need exact amounts or account numbers. Exact amounts and account numbers are usually not necessary to include in an estate plan. Many times, my clients will not have the exact same accounts and assets when they pass away as when we initially meet.
For instance, many people contribute to a 401(k) plan while working, but may change where the money is invested when they retire. The 401(k) money may stay in a 401(k) plan, be rolled over into an IRA, or be reallocated to different investments like a traditional investment / brokerage account, long term care insurance, or life insurance.
Because assets may change where they are held, or may be reallocated, a good, flexible estate planning will describe what will happen to a class of assets, like real estate, or investments, or life insurance, or retirement accounts, or other assets classes, and not list each individual account. That way, even if your assets change where they are held, the estate plan does not need to be re-written each time you change an asset.
I do encourage my clients to keep a list of current assets and where to find them in the same place as the estate plan, but I don’t like to have a list of assets as part of the estate plan. That makes it harder, and more expensive, to change the estate plan every time an asset changes.
What Other Information Will You Need?
I will ask for the name, address, and phone number of people you want to leave your assets to, or who you want to leave in charge of carrying out your wishes. Often, this is as simple as giving me the name, address, and phone number of your children, since children are often the named beneficiaries of your estate plan, but that is not always the case. If you want to leave assets to a different family member, or a charity, or other organization, I need to know the name, address, and phone number of the other people or organization, also.
What Decisions Do You Need to Make, or at Least Consider, Before Meeting With Your Estate Planning Attorney?
First and foremost, you need to think about who you want to receive your assets. This may seem like an obvious thing, especially if you just want to leave assets to your children, but it is not always so obvious. I meet with clients all the time who have grandchildren, and they need to decide if they want to leave everything to their children, or leave some directly to their grandchildren.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches, but you want to think about what your preference is before meeting with an estate planning attorney. You don’t want to leave a free consultation when trying to decide who should receive your assets and come back for another meeting that I will need to charge my hourly rate for the extra meeting’s time. That would be silly.
I cannot decide who will get your assets for you. If you truly have nobody to leave assets to when you pass away, I am happy to suggest my children as good people to leave your assets. That is not a serious suggestion, and I identify it as a “BAD IDEA” very clearly, but it helps me to make my point: your estate plan needs to reflect your wishes and desires for who receives your assets, not mine.
How Will I Know What Option I Should Choose for My Estate Plan?
We will discuss your options at our initial consultation. I generally discuss what would happen if you chose a will based plan vs. a trust based plan, and I can discuss the cost for each option. Cost is based on the amount of work involved in each plan, and what needs to be done in an estate plan, as they are not all created equal.
One will or estate plan may be straightforward, while another will or estate plan may have a complicated pattern for distributing assets, or need to protect assets from being given outright to minor children. Each plan has different amounts of work, and so the cost may vary from one plan to the next. Of course, cost is only one consideration. A good estate plan will consider your goals and objectives and also include the most cost efficient way to carry out your goals and objectives.
During an initial consultation, we will discuss your goals and objective, and you can decide what is the best way to carry those out after we have had a discussion about options and the cost of each option.
You Don’t Need to Decide Everything Before Hand, But You Should Get a Good Start
The major purpose of an initial consultation is to determine your goals and objectives for an estate plan, which is why you need to think about what you want to do before you meet with an estate planning attorney. I am able to create the necessary documents to describe what you want to do in your estate plan, and I can help you understand your options, but you need to decide what you want to do with your assets.
Without you choosing what to do with assets, it is not really your estate plan, so you need to think about what you want to do with assets before we meet. You may change your minds, or we may tweak your desires to make sure your desires are clearly expressed in your estate plan, but you need to think about what you want before we meet. It just works better that way!