Selecting an Estate Planning Attorney – Wisely, 04/27/2010

When you plan your estate, you are putting together your road map to your legacy. Your estate plan determines who will be entitled to your assets, how they can use them, and the protections which they and the assets you leave them may have from creditors, divorcing spouses, etc. The attorney whom you select to assist you in creating that plan is integral to its success. That is why you need to choose wisely.

When Bill and Mary were planning their estates, they went to an attorney who was a family friend, had a general practice and dabbled in many areas of the law. Their attorney, Frank, was very nice and even gave them a discount because of their friendship. Frank drafted Wills for them that appeared to work on the surface. Bill wanted one-half of his assets to go to Mary and one-half of his assets to go to his children from his first marriage. His Will seemed to do this. However, when Bill died, it did not work out that way. Bill had $750,000 in assets at his death. His one-half interest in the house he owned with Mary was worth $250,000. His one-half interest in the ranch he owned with his brother, Sam, was worth $300,000. Finally, his IRA was worth $200,000. Unfortunately, but unbeknownst to Bill and Mary, estate planning does not just entail writing down your wishes in a Will, like Frank did for them. It takes knowledge and experience to create an effective estate.

When Bill died, they discovered that the house was held in joint tenancy, so his $250,000 interest in the $500,000 house passed to Mary automatically at his death. It was not controlled by his Will at all. Likewise, the ranch was held in joint tenancy with Sam. Bill’s $300,000 interest in the ranch automatically passed to Sam, even though the Will provided otherwise. Finally, the IRA had a beneficiary designation naming Bill’s mother. After Bill’s first marriage ended, he had changed the designation to his mother. He forgot to update the designation when he remarried. Frank, though meaning well, did not think to ask about the beneficiary designations because he did not focus in estate planning and did not have the experience to know better.

So, of his $750,000 in assets, Bill wanted one-half, or $375,000, to go to his kids from his first marriage and $375,000 to Mary. Instead, Mary only got $250,000 and his kids from his first marriage got nothing—even though that’s not what his Will provided. An experienced attorney would have recommended that Bill change the house and ranch to tenancy-in-common property and would have made sure the beneficiary designation was updated. That way, Bill would have provided for his family as he had wanted.

Don’t make the same mistake that Bill and Mary did. Go to a qualified estate planning attorney who focuses his or her practice in estate planning, like those at Morris Hall. Make sure they get continuing legal education to stay updated on the latest developments in the field of estate planning. For example, the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys requires its members to earn 36 hours of training in estate planning or elder law annually. Once you select a qualified estate planning attorney, have confidence that your legacy is in good hands.