Taking Care of Loved Ones When We’re Gone – An Introduction to Estate Planning
I walked into the intensive care unit and found my dad sitting in a small chair with reading glasses perched on his nose and a small afghan covering his legs. I cannot recall exactly what he was reading and I doubt he can either as both of us were fixated on the monitor that would tell us when my mother could finally breathe on her own again. In front of my dad slouched a large LL Bean bag that although it bore his initials, looked a little girly to me (a gift from my grandmother no doubt). Carefully tucked in the bag, lay my mom’s most immediate necessities – her current reading selection, her glasses, and her jacket that she takes wherever they go because in Texas it’s always freezing indoors in June. My dad had prepared this tidy little kit to care for my mother when she awakened. But how did he know what book she was reading? How did he know where to find her glasses? More importantly, how did he keep the house running while she spent weeks in recovery?
Quite simply, my parents prepared. For most of my childhood my mom served as the family CFO. However, at some point, she wisely decided to let my dad in on the financial wizardry that put me, my mom, and my little sister through school all the while we had dinner on the table and clean clothes on our backs. As part of that preparation my parents also executed the legal documents that will guide our family upon my parents’ passing. Out of love for each other and their children, my parents made the tough decisions ranging from who gets my great aunt’s engagement ring to who determines when the life extending machinery gets turned off. This may have been an unpleasant exercise, but I am grateful that they took the steps to answer at least some of the questions for me and my sister.
For those of us (my hypocrisy acknowledged) who have not yet endeavored to formally plan for our demise, I thought I might ease into the process by asking some basic questions of an estate planning attorney, my partner Bill Blair.*
Why hire an attorney when you can use an online resource?
Certainly, it is possible to use a form or form service to prepare a will but not all wills are alike. First, they need to be prepared in accordance with the peculiarities of the laws of your state of residence. For example, Texas law provides that if you name your executor [i.e. the person who doles out your money and property when you’re gone] as “independent” then he or she can proceed with the administration of your estate [doling out the goods] outside of the supervision of the probate court, a valuable procedure [less court almost always means less attorney time, which means more money stays in your estate]. If you don’t use the proper language your estate may end up in a “dependent” administration which is much more time consuming and expensive [i.e. happy probate lawyers].