Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Estate planning touches emotions, offers gift to family
Death and taxes -- two subjects that are emotionally charged. Nobody wants to talk about either one of them -- together they are, well, taxing and deadly.
Do you break out in a cold sweat when discussing your will? Can you bear to think about whether there will be enough money to live on if your husband dies? Can you even think about which kid will run the business when Dad dies? Let alone talk about it in a family meeting?
The first hurdle to be overcome is facing your own mortality. Whenever I meet a client I try to wait until they use their own euphemism for death, then I use that expression for the rest of the conference.
There's a wide selection of substitutions for the "D" word -- "pass on," "kick the bucket," "meet my maker," "when something happens to me," "get hit by a truck," "pushing up daisies," "six feet under" -- just to name a few. People will say anything rather than "when I die."
Some folks hold to the superstition that making a will brings on death. Superstitious, yes, but nevertheless, it is a real impediment to many people.
The next hurdle is the fear of giving up control. Estate planning doesn't mean giving your assets away. Many people know they must do something to reduce taxes but fear giving control of assets to children. They have heard too many horror stories about ungrateful children who spend the family savings and turn their backs on their parents.
Most people want it both ways -- they want to retain unfettered control over all their assets and also pay no estate taxes. There are techniques that permit transfers while retaining significant control, and there are ways to protect funds. Learning about these approaches is part of the estate planning process.
Fear of dealing with an attorney is another big hurdle. You might be afraid the lawyer will think you are uninformed, unsophisticated.
Do you feel uninformed because you have to call the repairman to fix the air conditioner? Of course not. In the same way that you don't know how to fix an air conditioner, you don't know how to do an estate plan. This is no reflection on your intelligence or character.
You might be afraid of being gouged by fees or be afraid the attorney isn't going to listen to you but just forge ahead with a standard plan you don't want. The key to overcoming these fears is finding the right lawyer.
Like anything else, a referral from a satisfied client is often the best approach. Ask your friends who they use for an estate lawyer. Like any other important decision, it is good to do research and talk to a few lawyers or firms before making the hiring decision.
What does it cost? Fear of the expense is another thing that keeps people from estate planning. Let's face it. Estate planning is not for you -- it's for those you leave behind. You aren't going to be hurt by estate taxes. You will be "long gone." You aren't going to have to negotiate who gets the grandfather clock -- the kids are going to have to slug that out.
So how much money (not to mention time and emotional energy) are you willing to spend on an estate plan for your family? Estate planning is truly a gift to your family. Recognize it for what it is -- caring for others.
Leaving a well designed plan behind is the best gift you can give your family. Arrange your affairs to do the most good for your family, friends and charities.
Don't be afraid to ask how the attorney charges. Most attorneys will charge an hourly rate and you can expect to pay a high rate for a specialist. (Heart surgeons charge more than nurse practitioners.)
Some estate planning is done on a flat-fee basis, but an estimate can't be given until the attorney knows what will be involved. Almost no one gets a "simple will." More is involved than a will, and every family situation is different.
Tough family decisions are another emotional stumbling block. Is there a divorce looming for one of your children? Does one of the grandchildren have special needs? Will you or your spouse remarry? Who is going to control the family business after the parents are dead?
Facing these issues can be so painful that they are avoided indefinitely. Then a real mess is left behind. Avoiding the problem doesn't make it go away.
What if one of the children is in and out of drug rehab, or one of the kids is a successful professional and the other is a struggling single parent with small kids and a minimum-wage job. Do these children get treated equally in the estate plan?
What about blended families -- the children are yours, mine and ours. Do all of them share equally in both Mom's and Dad's estates?
Facing tough decisions like these is hard. The estate planning attorney can help you by giving you options and choices.
Do you really want to have someone else make these decisions for you after you are dead? Worse, do you want your family to be torn apart with the fighting over your estate?