Contributing Editor Robin Gorenberg is an award-winning attorney who specializes in estate planning, probate and estate tax preparation for individuals and law firms. She works with clients on both basic and complex estate plans, from Wills to all types of Trusts. Her goal is to communicate in a way that clients can easily understand, and to make them feel comfortable with the process and the ultimate documents.
Robin explains that an estate plan includes any documents, simple or complex, that deal with passing your assets after your death, as well as protecting your own decisions during your lifetime. She says the “3 basic documents” everyone should have are: (1) a Will – how to pass your assets at your death, (2) a Power of Attorney – naming someone to make your general and financial decisions during your lifetime if you’re unable to, and (3) a Health Care Proxy – naming someone to make your medical decisions if you are unable to make or communicate them. In addition to the 3 basic documents, there’s an option to set up 1 or more Trusts. A Trust can be used to avoid the 1+ year probate process, to provide for beneficiaries to receive their shares at later ages, and/or to reduce estate taxes due at death.
Have Your Own Plan
Robin says the term “estate plan” can be misinterpreted as being a “fancy sophisticated plan for the very wealthy.” An estate plan is a group of documents to deal with passing your estate at death and making decisions while you’re alive. If a woman in the 60+ age group has a Will, she should also have a Power of Attorney and a Health Care Proxy – the “basic 3” as explained above – and she might want to learn about Trusts as well.
Additionally, Robin advises that if a woman has a spouse or partner, each person needs their own Will and their own Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney. They would likely name each other to make the decisions but would each name alternates as well (who do not need to be the same for each of them). They could end up setting up a joint trust to avoid probate but the other documents would have to be separate for each.
On a related note, if a woman has adult children over age 18 (and before they are in their own families), each adult child should have a Power of Attorney and a Health Care Proxy. Once a child turns age 18, the parent no longer has legal authority to make any decisions for them or access their information. Having these 2 documents in place would avoid having to go into probate court to get appointed as their legal guardian if something happens to them after age 18.
3 Questions to Ask a Prospective Estate Planner
Robin suggests that anyone looking for an estate attorney ask 3 questions: First, how many years have you been practicing? Second, what types of clients do you typically work with? And third, what is your philosophy in working with clients on their estate plans?
She says her philosophy is to educate; she’s not the type of attorney that pushes documents on clients. “My job is to inform – to give the options, and the pros/cons, and to help clients decide which documents work best for them, given all of the pros and cons,” she says. “There are no right or wrong decisions.”