Your estate plan is your legal legacy. And while you may be able to make end-of-life plans on your own, the question is: should you?
An estate plan is a lot more than just a list of your assets and who gets them when you die. Even if your wishes are relatively straightforward -- "I want everything to go to my kids" -- making sure those wishes will be legally effective can sometimes be more complicated than you might think.
Here are five things that an estate planning lawyer can do that you probably can't:
- Customize your will -- without messing it up. Sure, you can easily find a will template online and simply fill in the blanks. But most people's lives, families, and assets don't fit neatly into a generic, mass-produced template. If you need to alter a provision in a template or form will, you run the risk of invalidating not only that provision but possibly the entire will. Better to have an experienced professional draft important documents from scratch.
- Avoid probate and estate taxes. If you wish to avoid putting your estate through probate, there are several ways a lawyer can help you do it, such as with gifts, the use of death beneficiaries, and joint property ownership. However, the most common way of avoiding both probate and estate taxes (if your estate will be subject to them) is through the use of trusts. Just like with wills, there are templates available for trusts. And just like with wills, if you zig when you should've zagged when forming a trust, you entire estate plan may be thrown out the window.
- Know what legal instruments best suit your situation. In some situations, a simple will is sufficient. In others, several different types of trusts may be needed. An estate lawyer can advise you on how much, or how little, heavy lifting your estate plan requires. An estate planning lawyer can also help you with other legal instruments that may be very useful for long-term planning, such as a living will or durable power of attorney.
- Let you know when it's time to update your estate plan. Yesterday's estate plan, no matter how air-tight, may not work for today's reality. A change in your family, your assets, or even your location may require changes to your estate plan. And since the last thing you're probably thinking about when you have a new baby or move to another state is rewriting your will, having an attorney who's got your back can help you keep your will up to date when it otherwise might be overlooked.
- Keep up with the latest laws. They don't reprint your state's Probate Code every year just to sell more books (although it probably doesn't hurt). Estate planning laws are constantly changing, and only an estate planning lawyer will know about the newest rules, like the growing number of states giving executors of estates access to a deceased person's e-mail and social media accounts.
If you need professional help with your estate plan, an experienced estate planning attorney can help insure that your wishes are honored, both in life and in death.
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