All I have to do is respond to a question about what type of law I practice and I am generally met with one of the reply statements that follow. If I had a dollar for each time I’ve heard one of these statements, I would close up shop here at DGVE law for a month each summer and take my family on holiday to the beach in the south of Spain. Someday. Meanwhile, I listen to these comments over and over and usually have to politely bite my tongue as they’re friends and neighbors and lawyer-colleagues and my children’s friends’ parents who say them in passing. Here are a few of my favorites and what I wish I could politely say:
“We did our Wills when we had our first baby. We’re all set!”
That’s wonderful! How old is that baby now? If the answer is anything less than five years old, chances are good you’re not quite as “all set” as you would like to believe you are. What is your attorney’s name? When was the last time you heard from him/her? Does your family know where your plan is and what to do in the event of a medical emergency or after your death?
Do you have your boiler or fireplace cleaned and inspected every few years? The price you’ll likely pay for a an estate plan check-up to ensure that your plan actually does what you want it to when the time comes will be very reasonable. If there are missing pieces, you can fill them in now, while you still can. If it’s great just the way it is, you can rest assured and tuck it away again for a few years unless anything changes. You can use the closest holiday or birthday to the date you signed your estate planning documents into effect as the anniversary on which to take them out, dust them off, and give them a quick review.
“My [husband’s brother’s former roommate’s cousin – this always reminds me of that scene in Spaceballs, but you can just choose any combination like this and insert it here] did our Wills for us.”
That’s great! Oh, he primarily does personal injury and criminal defense work? Really? You might want to have an estate planning lawyer take a look at that for you! There is a very big, qualitative difference between an attorney who has access to legal forms into which he can plug your basic information and one who actually understands nuances to the process to ask you the right questions, give you enough information to make a fully informed decision, and then custom fit the right plan for you and your family based on your unique set of needs and goals.
I have a checklist I use to evaluate the strength and condition of existing estate plans. It’s nice when I can tell a prospective client, you’re in pretty good shape here and show them where to fill in any missing pieces or how to tighten up loose ends. It’s not as lovely when I have to be the bearer of bad news that a plan is really not going to hold up as intended and needs a total overhaul.
“I/my spouse work[s/ed] for one of the big law firms downtown, so they did our Wills for us and they’re all fancy with trusts and everything so I’m sure we’re all set!”
Fabulous! When was that? Is it time for a review? Do you understand your “fancy” plan and how it all works? Does it do what you want it to do? Are all your bases really covered? Are your trusts funded? With what? Why? Have you acquired new assets, purchased additional life insurance, or moved or refinanced in the past few years? Did you also leave behind some kind of record of your intangible assets, the bits and pieces of you that are most important and will be most cherished byyour surviving loved ones? It’s time to dust off your plan and if you have any questions, ask your lawyer to explain it until you feel comfortable and are sure it’s what you really wanted.
“We don’t have anything and no one would fight about anything so we don’t need to.”
Most families get at least a little bit “emotional” when it comes to major life events like weddings, births, and deaths. And sometimes in all those excited emotional states, even otherwise totally rational, well-intentioned, loving people can make poor choices and relationships can be upset. In the event of a tragedy, like the premature death of two young parents in an accident, you can multiply that emotion. It’s so much better to provide for eventualities than leave it to grieving surviving loved ones to decide amongst themselves!
“I talked with my sister when I had my baby and she said she would be honored to take care of my baby if something ever happened to me.” or the related “My sister is my child’s godmother and I know she’d raise my child as her own.”
That’s fantastic! Now, assuming the other parent of that baby agrees, there’s nothing left to do but turn that loving conversation or nomination of godparent into the appropriate legal documentation of your your choice of guardian for your child. If you are no longer in a relationship with the child’s other parent this can be a bit more complicated but it’s still worth doing. Ask your lawyer how.