It’s hard to believe that I’ve been practicing law now for over 12 years. When I first opened my law practice in 2005, I did so because I wanted to help individual clients and become a the lawyer they turn to whenever they have a problem. Even if I couldn’t help them, I knew that by creating relationships with other lawyers in the community I would be able to help them find the right lawyer or resource for their situation.
Over time, I began to focus my law practice on helping my clients to peacefully and collaboratively end their marriage. But, as with all things in life, things change over time.
During the past several years, I’ve had many of my divorce clients ask me about what they should do with their wills. Should they rip them up? Amend them? Something else?
Many of my client’s didn’t even have wills at all – which is amazing since so many of them also had small children!
An Estate Planning Practice is Born
In January of 2016, I went through a personal tragedy that started to shift my perspective. My Mother died of cancer. And while her death was not altogether unexpected, it was sudden and abrupt. One day she is doing fine, the next day she is getting admitted to the hospital, and several days later she is gone.
What I didn’t realize at the time, but I understand now, is that her estate was a mess. The day after she died, my siblings and I were forced to find a funeral home and shell out thousands of dollars to pay for her funeral because she hadn’t planned for this expense. Luckily for us, there were three of us to split the cost, and together we were financially capable of paying this bill.
But what if we weren’t?
What if there was only one of us and we couldn’t afford her funeral?
A little bit of planning on my Mom’s part could have avoided this potentially embarrassing scenario.
And this was just the beginning. We were still dealing with her estate and property almost a year after she passed. This has been emotionally and financially difficult. At times it feels like I can’t properly say good-bye because her estate is constantly hanging over my head.
So as I went through the process of hiring a lawyer for my mother, and dividing up stuff with my siblings, I started thinking about what could have been done different to make this whole process easier and less expensive. I also started to think my own planning, and the ways that I could be more proactive for my own family.
And then I started to think about my final conversations with my mother. They were incoherent because she was sedated and couldn’t understand everything that was going on. We never had a great opportunity to say goodbye, in part because she refused to acknowledge the inevitable decline of her own body. It was good to have some quality time with her in her last few days, but I don’t have a lasting legacy of her. My children will barely remember her. All I have are some voice mails from her, but her stories and values and the sound of her voice are not preserved in any meaningful way.
How Our Estate Planning Practice is Different
All of this got me to thinking about what I wanted to do with my firm. My firm motto has always been to “building lifelong relationships, one client at a time,” but this was nearly impossible to do when my primary role was to help tear families apart through divorce.
So I started to think about how I could provide true value to all of my clients. More than just providing a set of legal documents, but instead to provide peace of mind and helpful counsel. To become a trusted advisor who can work with families through the years to create a lasting legacy, not just for their financial assets, but for their intellectual property as well – their stories, values and vision of how they want their children and grandchildren to grow into amazing and productive adults.
So in looking back at how my Mother handled her estate planning, I’ve found three major estate planning problems that I’ve chosen to focus on with my firm:
Outdated Estate Planning Documents
First, she wrote her documents years ago. She had a basic will and not much else. She never shared her estate plan with either me or my siblings. This was a big mistake. An estate plan is a living, breathing set of documents. And over time it may change. For that reason, I’ve set up a process where my clients can come back and revisit their plan at least every three years for no charge. And if you are the type of person that likes more interaction, we have additional membership options that will allow you to come in annually to make any necessary changes. Not only that, but we encourage our clients, especially those with adult children, to bring those children into the process early so that we can build that relationship for when the unexpected happens.
Overuse of Payable on Death Designations
Second, she made extensive use of POD provisions with her bank accounts. That means “payable on death”. The problem with these provisions is that her bank accounts were shut down immediately when she died. And even though we were the beneficiaries, we also may also have needed immediate access to funds to pay for her funeral expenses, rent, etc. Because of the POD provisions, her accounts were shut down for several weeks until documentation could be submitted to the bank allowing them to pay out the funds. With some simple tweaks to her plan, we could have had immediate access her accounts to pay for these expenses the morning after she died.
Building a Legacy that Can Be Passed On from Generation to Generation
Finally, my Mom refused to acknowledge that she was going to die. Even with terminal cancer, she thought she was going to beat it until her dying breath. And because of that, we never had the opportunity to record her voice and her stories and the values she wanted to leave to her grandchildren. For that reason, I’ve set up a process where we will record these stories and memories now, so that you have preserved them for your children and loved ones later.
Why I Do What I Do…
On a personal level I am a Husband and Father to three wonderful kids.
And that might be the most important thing I can share with you today. That the planning I’ve done, and the planning we can do for our clients isn’t really about you. It’s about creating a plan that’s going to take care of the people who you love the most.
Honestly, you won’t get the benefit of a lot of what we do here because you won’t be here when this plan is needed. Or you won’t be aware when the plan is needed. But the people who are closest to you and that you love the most will be very aware of what you have done, and the gift you have given them. So that is really what I would say my children bring to this whole process – the awareness that, if it weren’t for the people you love so much you might reading this here today.