Selecting the right legal advisor can be overwhelming.
How do I know what they are like?
What can I expect?
How do I compare services with any other firms?
If you are thinking about having an estate plan prepared, or if it is time to review or update an existing plan, it might be helpful for you to understand how we approach the estate planning process. You may have questions about how we handle the Initial Consultation such as “how long will it take?” or “what should I bring?” Some clients also want to understand whether and how we integrate their other advisors (financial, tax, business, etc.) into the planning process. Or maybe you want to understand what needs to be done when a loved one has passed away. Understanding what instructions apply to your specific situation can be difficult.
Follow the links below to learn more about our process and what you can expect.
THE ESTATE PLANNING PROCESS
Estate Planning is a process. It takes time. It requires an exchange of information between client and advisor, mutual education and understanding. And it takes commitment to follow through. We approach the planning process using these five steps.
The Initial Consultation Meeting is dedicated to learning. We want to learn about you, your family, your planning priorities, and any potential problems you foresee. To make the process more efficient, please complete the Estate Planning or Long-Term Care Planning Questionnaire prior to your first meeting. A complete and accurate Questionnaire is essential to the estate planning process. An equally important part of this process is learning about different planning strategies and options. Don’t assume that the trust your parents have is the same one you will want to use. You will likely have many questions about things you have heard about, and this is the time to ask them. You can’t build a good foundation without good information.
Step Two – Plan Design
Your estate plan should be crafted based on your priorities. Those priorities will dictate the essential design features of your plan. After determining the basic design, you can also tailor the strategies to specific needs. During a Review Meeting, we will spend time describing additional strategies and options so you can select the features you feel will enhance your plan, and discard those that don’t feel right to you. We like to think of this as the “design” phase, because now we are adding the detail to the original blueprint.
Step Three – Asset Alignment
Writing a plan that could work differs greatly from creating a plan that will work. The success or failure of the plan all depends on asset alignment. Prior to the Implementation (Signing) Meeting, we will prepare a set of recommendations regarding how the assets disclosed to us should be titled to achieve your planning goals. If you are working with a financial advisor, we strongly encourage that he/she participate in the asset alignment process. Having a team that works together to achieve the same objectives is essential to an effective planning strategy.
Step Four – Implementation
The Implementation (Signing) Meeting puts your plan in place and reviews how assets will (or will not) be affected by the legal documents. Once properly executed (signed), we will provide you with your Original documents and an electronic copy of every document in your plan. The remainder of the meeting focuses on making sure that all of your assets will be transferred under the plan you just put in place. Where probate avoidance has been identified as a priority, this typically involves the process of “funding” a revocable trust by changing ownership of assets or adding or changing beneficiary designations. Your financial advisor can be extremely helpful in this process, and when clients approve, advisors are often invited to attend this meeting.
Step Five – Maintenance
Like any plan, an estate plan must be maintained. If you stick it in a drawer and don’t pull out for ten years, it will be stale; and it might not work the way you wanted it to. Life brings change. Your family will change. Your finances will change. The law will change. Most important, your priorities will change. We will let you set the schedule. But you will want to re-examine your plan design and the asset alignment every few years to make sure your goals are still met.
When You are Ready
When you are ready to schedule a meeting, please call or complete the Meeting Request Form on our website and we will call you to schedule an Initial Consultation. Please understand that our calendar is often booked weeks in advance. If your matter is urgent, please let us know and we will do our best to accommodate you.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM YOUR FIRST MEETING
It still surprises us, but we sometimes hear that people are nervous about what to expect from a meeting to discuss estate planning or long-term care planning.
- What should we bring?
- My finances are a mess – maybe I should wait until I’m better organized?
- Will I ask the right questions?
- How much will this cost?
These are appropriate questions and hopefully the answers will make you feel comfortable taking that first step and calling to schedule an appointment.
What should we bring?
When your meeting is scheduled, we will send you confirmation of the date and time. We will also provide you with a copy of our Estate Planning Questionnaire or our Long-Term Care Planning Questionnaire (if the need to enter long term care is immediate). The questionnaire will take time, because it asks for a lot of personal information about your family, and about your assets and how they are titled. We are not trying to be intrusive, but many details become part of an estate plan that depend on the answers to these questions. Identifying family members by name and address will be important to make sure that they are correctly identified in your planning documents. Understanding whether accounts are solely or jointly owned, or have a specific beneficiary designation, will be critical if avoiding probate is one of your goals. Understanding the value of your assets is essential for us to provide any meaningful tax advice, or to provide meaningful recommendations regarding asset protection strategies. If you do not complete the questionnaire, our ability to advise will be affected, and your plan will take longer to prepare, because if you wish to move forward, we will need that information before we can help you design a plan.
The other items please provide are any existing legal documents you have signed . This includes Wills, Trusts, Powers of Attorney and Health Care documents, but also includes Pre-Nuptial Agreements, Separation or Divorce Decrees. Also helpful would be business agreements if you have an LLC Operating Agreement or a business Buy-Sell Agreement. Reviewing pre-existing documents allows us to understand your plan – or existing obligations – so we can better advise you regarding possible changes.
My finances are a mess – maybe I should wait until I’m better organized?
On the finance front, “it is what it is.” The best anyone can do is plan for today. Things will change going forward, but having a plan is better than no plan.
Also, planning actually prompts organization. Suddenly someone has asked you to list financial accounts, or expenses, and even though the picture might not meet all of your future goals, the process of organization permits you to see things and prioritize next steps.
Will I ask the right questions?
You will have lots of questions. Write them down. Please know that we may not provide legal advice via email or by phone, so scheduling a “pre-meeting” call is not very productive. Our first priority is to feel comfortable with the plan being created. So, if that takes a little longer to make sure that your questions are answered, that is what will happen.
How much will this cost?
We charge no fee for the initial consultation. Usually the consultation meeting takes at least an hour. Most estate plans will be completed for a flat fee, which will be determined at the consultation, based upon the features of the plan you select. By the time you leave your consultation meeting you will clearly understand the complete cost of the process.
WORKING WITH YOUR OTHER ADVISORS
At Sullivan & Griffith, LLP, we often work closely with other professional advisors, as part of an estate planning team. We believe this approach provides clients with the most comprehensive, realistic and effective estate plans.
However, your privacy is our first and most important priority. Without your express permission, we are not permitted to divulge any confidential information related to you, your family or our representation to any third party, including another advisor. However, to the extent that you have authorized us to do so, we will review our recommendations with your designated financial or tax advisors. This consultation becomes more critical if your plan has tax avoidance or probate avoidance features. In those instances it will be important to make sure that assets are titled consistently with your plan. To accomplish this, we may even invite your other advisors to participate in a meeting (with your express permission, of course).
WHAT TO KNOW WHEN SOMEONE PASSES AWAY
When someone you love passes away, it’s important to give yourself time. It takes time to process grief. It takes time to get your bearings. In almost every case, legal and financial matters can wait. Do not rush to get things done. Do not rush to cancel anything. Do not rush to claim insurance or any other benefits until you have had a chance to review matters with a legal advisor.
You will be offered help from many sources. This will come as a great relief and you should accept that help – but AFTER you have had a chance to review and process all of the decisions together. In some cases, acting too quickly without understanding all of the steps and how those steps relate to one another can cause unforeseen headaches. Accounts that are closed to quickly cannot be used to deposit a refund or final pension payment. If mail is stopped, you may not become aware of pressing bills or other obligations. We strongly recommend that you meet with an experienced advisor before you make any decisions regarding how you wish to settle an estate or trust.
What should we bring to the first meeting?
Our website includes an Estate Administration Checklist. It identifies the types of documents that will help your meeting be thorough and effective. When the checklist describes statements or bills – it refers to statements that cover the date of death. If your loved one died on May 18th, a statement issue on May 10th would not be the correct the statement because the date of death occurred after the statement closing date. The statement would need to be dated May 18th or later (e.g., May 31st). If there is no urgency because of family or finances, waiting to for these statements to come in will make the process more efficient (and cost effective) from the outset.
What does the process involve?
The process of settling an estate can vary, depending upon the circumstances. Is a full probate estate required or desired? Is the estate taxable? Are there any assets located out of state? These are the types of things that can require one or more additional steps in the process. We have provided a very abbreviated map/chart of the Estate Administration Process below. The chart describes general considerations (not specific tasks), and not all of the considerations identified will be applicable to your situation. But each of the considerations should be reviewed to determine if there is something that needs to be done.
How much will this cost?
Estate administration costs vary widely depending upon the nature of the planning that was done, the overall size and complexity of the estate, and whether there are any special or difficult issues to resolve between the beneficiaries. Because we are obligated to provide detailed fee memorandums upon demand (describing the nature of the tasks performed and the time that it took to complete those tasks), we still bill hourly for estate administrations. We will have a much better understanding of the cost of your particular estate after we understand its scope. Because we administer so many different types of estates, we have in place a full suite of technology solutions allowing us to inventory, value, report and transfer asset information quickly and efficiently. Assets entered for tax purposes can be valued automatically, reported on tax forms and then reported on any required probate forms. This permits us to complete the process faster, and significantly cheaper than if all of these documents were completed without the help of the most up to date technology.