Estate Planning Basics: How to Prepare When Meeting with an Estate Planner

One of the most important, and most dreaded, steps in getting your financial house in order is establishing an estate plan and understanding estate planning basics. It’s common to want to delay this task until the future; however, spending time to address this subject in advance may provide significant wealth savings, avoid future issues among family and friends, and give you a sense of peace about your wealth.

The challenge is that this is often the first legal relationship many individuals will experience, and they have no idea where to start. Thinking through a few key items can set up your first meeting for success:

1. Create a Net Worth Statement

An outline of your assets and liabilities is incredibly helpful as it allows your attorney to easily understand your financial picture. If you have a financial advisor, ask them to complete this for you; chances are that they complete these on a regular basis and know exactly what your attorney needs.

If you plan to do this exercise yourself, you should be comprehensive, but don’t get caught in the weeds. The most important information simply includes a brief description of the asset/liability, the amount, and who owns it. As you work through this exercise consider the following:

  • Current Assets: Bank accounts, investment accounts, real estate, insurance policies, business interests, and any significant tangible assets (e.g. art, boat, etc.)
  • Current Liabilities: Mortgages, credit card debt, business loans, personal loans, etc.

After this information is compiled, contemplate whether you expect any significant changes in the future. This could include an inheritance, a sale of a business, acquiring additional real estate, or another major life event. While some of these events may not occur for a long time, it is never too early to bring them to your estate attorney’s attention.

2. Know Your Account Beneficiaries

If you have employer retirement plans, individual retirement accounts, or insurance policies, you most likely selected beneficiaries when you first set up the accounts. Make sure you know who the beneficiaries are on each of your accounts, and bring a printout of that information to your meeting, as your attorney may suggest changes based on your conversations.

To determine who your beneficiaries are, you can either ask your financial advisor, contact the institution where your accounts are held, or go online. Most financial institutions include beneficiary information on each client’s personal website.

3. Determine Who You Want to Inherit Your Assets

Sometimes this decision is incredibly easy; other times there can be significant challenges. As you map out where and how your assets should be disbursed, ask yourself these questions:

  • How much do you want each individual (or charity) to receive? Is there a maximum or minimum?
  • Should everyone be treated equally or are there situations where you might want to deviate?
  • At what age(s) do you want your beneficiaries to receive full or partial access to the assets?
  • Is there anyone you want to purposely exclude from receiving a portion of the inheritance?
  • Are there any specific situations that need to be taken into account, such as a beneficiary having a history of drug abuse, a child with special needs, complicated relationships, or previous marriages?

It may be difficult to talk through these situations and concerns, but transparency is necessary to ensure your estate plan addresses everything that you want and need.

4. Decide Who Will Fill Important Roles

Eventually you will need someone to step into your shoes to make important decisions and carry out your wishes. Not only should you focus on individuals you trust, but you should also consider who is willing and best able to take on those responsibilities.

The most common roles include:

  • Executor: This is who will administer your estate according to your will. While the requirements are fairly simple if you set things up correctly, the role can be more complex with partnerships, business interests, or foreign assets. You will want someone who can handle some complexity and responsibility.
  • Trustee: This is who will manage & disburse assets held in trust, if any of your assets are left in a trust.
  • Guardian: This is who will care for any minor children. Keep in mind, a guardian and trustee can be two different people. The guardian can be someone who’s good with children, while a trustee should be responsible with money.
  • Financial Power of Attorney: This power of attorney grants someone the authority to handle your financial transactions & affairs in the event you are incapacitated.
  • Health Care Power of Attorney: This power of attorney allows someone to make decisions about your health care in the event you are unable to do so.

As you determine who would be best to serve now, also decide who you may want to serve as the successor in each instance, in case your primary choice is no longer living or able to serve in that role.

It’s unlikely that you will have all of the answers prior to your initial meeting, and that is okay. Your estate planner will help you to think through all important scenarios and offer up solutions. Knowing where to start is usually the hardest part, and once you have a general framework in place, it can be easy to adjust as needed.

See our top questions to ask your estate attorney this year:

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To learn how Glassman Wealth Services approaches estate planning with our clients, get in touch and learn more.

Lindsay Shetterly, CIMA®, CES™

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  1. […] financial advisor can walk you through exactly how to prepare for your meeting to minimize the time and cost […]