Preparing a will and an estate plan is not generally considered an enjoyable activity, but it is very important for all adults, especially married couples. I shared some information on why this is so important and how to get started preparing your will and estate plan on the blog last week. I also listed some difficult issues you and your spouse will have to decide so that you can have a proper estate plan. Now, you’re probably thinking, That’s great, we’ve done that, but we haven’t got the foggiest idea of what to do now! Well, let’s talk about some of the practical things you need to do to get and maintain your estate plan.
How to Find a Lawyer
The first thing you need to do is find a lawyer who can prepare your estate plan. There are a few ways to find a good attorney. One of the best (and oldest) is word of mouth. Ask your friends and family who have wills who their lawyer was and what they thought of the attorney. Not every lawyer prepares wills and estate plans, but one attorney knows many other attorneys. If you know a lawyer, but he or she does not practice probate and estate law, ask them if they know anyone that they would recommend.
If you do not know any lawyers or know anyone who does, your next best bet is to try to find a lawyer referral service. There are a lot of these around the country, usually as part of local and state bar associations (professional groups for lawyers). When you call the lawyer referral service, you will tell them what legal issue you are having and they will refer you to an attorney on their list whose specialty covers the area you need help in. For example, my firm does a fair amount of probate work and we have registered with the Oakland County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service as probate and estate attorneys. If people call the Lawyer Referral Service looking for an attorney to put together an estate plan, they are often given our phone number. The American Bar Association has an up-to-date list of lawyer referral services throughout the country so you can find one in your area.
There are other ways to find an attorney. Some organizations, such as unions, corporations, and credit unions, offer some sort of prepaid legal plan. You should check the terms of these to determine how much they will cover. Some will only do the initial consultation for free; others will do some amount of routine paperwork. Another option is to find a legal assistance group like a legal aid clinic that will provide a low-cost or free attorney if you meet certain criteria, such as low income or age. Most state and local bar associations maintain lists of the legal aid clinics in your state or city and what eligibility requirements they have.
LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer and Other Online Services
There are online services that put these documents together (or at least give you a form to fill out), but they always make me nervous. The biggest reason for this is that wills and estate plans are not one-size fits all. Each estate plan is different based on the needs of the people and families involved. Let me tell you a secret: every lawyer uses forms. I do. We have books full of them. But every document I work on is unique and needs to be revised to meet the needs of my client.
Let me give you an example: Maria and I decided that, supposing some worst case scenario happens and both of us pass, we want our siblings to inherit our assets unless they have children. If any of our siblings have children (which two of them do), we want their children to have the inheritance to use for their education. There is no form for that. I had to make up language for that, even though I was starting with a form. That is what an attorney does; they learn your situation, make recommendations (maybe even some options that you haven’t even heard of before) and craft your document to meet your particular wants and needs.
LegalZoom and other online document form vendors, on the other hand, do not do that. They provide you the form and wish you good luck. Which is where another problem comes in: is what you write in the form valid? Each state is different and there are so many different legal rules and interpretations that most people are not aware of. A regular person can write one thing, but a court would interpret it differently.
There are a host of other reasons I don’t think you should use an online service like LegalZoom, but they are fairly minor compared to the two I’ve just mentioned. I always recommend hiring an attorney to prepare your will, rather than an online legal service. Even as I prepare our personal wills, I will have someone check over my work to ensure that there are no errors. Online legal services don’t offer that component.
Storing Your Will and Other Documents
So, your lawyer drafted your wills and you signed them and your other estate plan documents. Now what? Mainly, you need to store them for safekeeping where people will think to find them in the event that they do need them. I have my current will stored along with my life insurance policy, my disability insurance policy and other records. You should tell a few people where you have it stored in case they need access to it. Dave Ramsey calls this the Legacy Drawer and I actually started doing after watching Financial Peace University with Maria.
Some banks will also hold on to wills if they are designated as a trustee in the will. I personally favor holding on to your own will. It allows you to review it as your circumstances change. On top of that, your house is the first place that will be searched if your will becomes necessary.
Keep Your Will Current
Maria and I will have some relatively simple wills to start with since we have a fairly simple family situation. However, I plan to revisit our estate plan whenever we have any major changes, such as buying a house or the birth of children. You should review your will and, if necessary, update it when you have a major life event so that it reflects your new situation. Some changes you can anticipate and cover that situation in the will, such as the birth of children, but others you cannot anticipate. It is those unanticipated life circumstances that require you to review your will and make sure that it still expresses your wishes accurately.
Preparing your estate plan can be particularly difficult, especially for a new couple. Several of my friends who have been married for several years, though, have told me that it does not get easier. As difficult as these conversations are, having them now rather than trying to sort things out in your hour of need will make things just a bit easier for you. On top of that, you will be sure that your money and property goes where you want it to go, not where the government thinks it should go.