Planning for Life: The Citizen takes an extensive look into the importance of estate planning
There is an old saying about death and taxes - that amid the swells of uncertainty in life, you can always count on those two. But with the concrete certainty of life's end, many fail to prepare for it adequately, if at all. Of all the necessary decisions in life, planning for its end is, perhaps, the least popular-the dented can of beans on the shelf of major life choices.
A 2007 study done by Harris Interactive found that 55 percent of American adults had no will of any kind. 59 percent have no healthcare directive, detailing what to do if they are incapacitated.
10 percent say they haven't planned just because they enjoy the blissful ignorance. Who wants to think about dying? Another 9 percent claim the too-overwhelmed defense, saying they just don't know where to start. 24 percent don't think they have enough assets to worry about in the first place; estate planning is for those who have estates - you know, of the guest houses and stabled-horses variety.
In truth, though, nearly all adults will need a will when they die, even if they aren't pulling down millions.
"What I've come to realize is that there ARE stages in life," says Mike Bracewell, Morgan County probate court judge. "As your situation in life changes, your needs change. You prepare for a child to be born, you need to prepare for that other end, too. It's just as much a part of the cycle as the beginning."
Bracewell has seen his share of unpreparedness during his tenure in probate court, from those who died without any instructions to the living who can't make their own decisions anymore.
"When the probate court comes in, it's often when there's nobody else," he said. "It's almost like the court of last resort."
While few think they'll ever get to that point, without specific instructions for healthcare and financial assets, those vital decisions could fall to the whim of the court, regardless of age or financial status.
Bob Prior, a Madison attorney specializing in estate planning, says it's not just the wealthy or those with large families that need to get ready for the unexpected.
"When you have property that's in your name," he says of when it's time to get a will. "Could that be at age 18? Yeah, for some folks."
Prior says that, although a will is an option, a trust - that oft-misunderstood document - is a much better choice for most people.
"A living trust is nothing more than a good set of instructions. It appoints a trustee to hold title to all your assets, tells them what to do if you become disabled."
Trusts aren't just for the insanely wealthy or those lucky babies with a six-figure inheritance, either. Prior recommends them to many of his clients for several reasons.
Firstly, they don't have to be probated. A traditional will must go to the probate court after a person's death, where heirs can contest the will and the court monitors the executor, who is chosen to divvy up assets. Trusts never have to go to a court.
A trust also allows for directions about healthcare decisions, commonly known as a living will, as well as instructions for assets in the event of an incapacitating disability, like Alzheimer's or dementia, or death.
"You're getting the power of attorney function and a will function all in one document," says Prior, which is why he thinks it's preferable for most people. It allows for any degree of specificity, from carte blanche authority handed to the person named, to special instructions on things like treatment, life support and guardianship of children.
But even after recognizing the need for some instructions, the process can seem daunting,time-consuming and costly. There is a smörgåsbord of enticing do-it-yourself options bouncing around the Internet and on low-price, special-offer deals in office supply stores, but both Prior and Bracewell warn against these, as do many financial advisory bodies.
"Well, it's like everything else - you get what you pay for," says Prior. "If you want professional advice, it's worth the money and time you will pay."
Bracewell echoes this advice. "So many people try to avoid using an attorney," he says. "I know what they're trying to do, and they may save money in the short-term, but it's to a lay person's advantage to have a lawyer advising them on these kind of things."
Prior suggests making sure you know what's going on from the outset.
"You need to make sure your professional has a frank discussion with you up front. Then the client has a clear understanding of that cost," he says, warning that it's important to find someone who can help plan for the specific and unique situations that everyone has.
"There is estate planning, and then there is word processing, which is just plugging names into a document. That's just one step away from taking it off the shelf at an office supply store.
"You just need to hire someone that you trust. You need to check references, you need to ask around, you need to spend some time with your estate planners."
But Prior and other industry experts say that having a plan from the beginning and keeping up with it properly is not as hard as it seems and is worth every minute and penny.
"Revisit your estate planning documents every time there's a milestone event in your life," he advises. "The worst thing that can happen is you ignore it and then don't pay attention to it, and then something unforeseen happens and the state decides who takes care of your children.
"If you haven't left that set of instructions behind, no on can read your mind."
In the end, taking a little time to plan for the end before it comes ensures that, whenever you go, you leave a legacy.