For most people the thought of putting their affairs in order is an event that occurs when something unexpected happens. The thought of writing a will or implementing a power of attorney may feel like you have one foot in the grave or you're giving up control of your life and your financial resources. By procrastinating you may risk losing an opportunity to plan appropriately in order to avoid unnecessary estate and income taxes as well as losing the opportunity to protect your assets from a long term care stay. Timing is critical in order to implement documents such as a durable power of attorney, advance health care directive, will or trust. If you've had a stroke or suffer from Alzheimer's disease, you may be foreclosed from implementing needed estate planning documents.
You are never too young to start planning for an unforeseen health related problem or for the future of your family should you die unexpectedly. At the initial conference with your estate or elder law attorney, you can make the time spent with the professional both valuable and cost effective by being prepared to provide the attorney with a complete picture of your family situation. First and foremost you should be up front with regard to the interpersonal relationship among your close family members. If your children don't get along, your legal counsel needs to be aware of this fact. If someone in the family suffers from an addiction such as alcoholism, drug, gambling or spending then you need to advise your attorney of this fact. This would not be the type of person who should be in charge of their inheritance or financial affairs. If a family member suffers from a disability, then it must be discussed at length in the meeting. It is important to develop a comfortable and trusting relationship with the attorney, keeping in mind that the estate planning process is a dynamic not a static process. As events such as marriage, divorce, death or the birth of a grandchild occur then there may be a need to revamp the overall estate plan.
Your current health situation should be discussed in great detail. Any past illnesses or pertinent family history such as cancer, heart disease, Parkinson's disease, mental illness or the like should be revealed and discussed with your attorney. If there is any major change in your health related status, it is important to immediately contact your attorney and schedule a meeting. This information will help your legal counsel sculpt a relevant estate plan based on both familial and health related factors.
Your relevant financial information is critical to the process. You should provide the lawyer with two years of individual tax returns and business tax returns where relevant. A year end and recent brokerage account, bank statement, retirement plan or IRA statement and those involving insurance policies and annuities should be provided to the attorney prior to the meeting. They should be taken with you to the meeting with legal counsel. Any real estate holdings and deeds should also be revealed to the lawyer and brought to your initial meeting. Most lawyers will make copies of all this information or ask you to assemble it in an initial fact finding document that would be sent to you in advance of your meeting. Where possible it is important to provide your attorney with appropriate beneficiary statements for life insurance policies, annuities, and retirement plans. Keep in mind that these assets flow directly to your designated beneficiaries outside of the parameters of your will or trust. Improper titling of assets or designation of beneficiaries could have disastrous implications. Assets may flow to a disabled family member or one that suffers from an addictive personality. On the other hand, it may pass assets to a person who is too young or incapable of managing their financial affairs. All of this information will help the estate planning attorney develop a plan that is tailored to your specific needs and circumstances. I have seen situations where a person has named a parent who has passed away or prior spouse as a beneficiary of an insurance policy. Designating a disabled party to inherit an asset could actually negatively impact their ability to access available governmental benefits.
If you are involved in a business or family farm, you should provide the lawyer with business related agreements and tax returns. You may have executed a buy/sell agreement, partnership agreement or some other legal document that could either positively or negatively affect your estate plan. If you are part of the blended family, you may have implemented a prenuptial agreement which should be brought to the meeting. It may obligate you to leave a certain portion of your assets to your prior spouse or to your current spouse. These documents and their requirements must be melded into your overall estate plan. By providing your estate and elder law attorney with a complete personal and financial picture from the outset, you will be arming them with the necessary tools to implement an individually tailored and well thought out estate and elder care plan for your specific needs. Without being open and providing the attorney with complete and comprehensive information regarding your family and your assets, you and your heirs may find that you will suffer undesirable tax and elder care ramifications. If you have already had a meeting with the lawyer, then you should be certain to update your information and schedule a follow up meeting at least every three years since laws impacting the estate and elder law genres are ever changing.