Do you need to have an estate plan in place? That is the question that we are going to answer today. Spoiler alert: yes, if you are an adult, you need to have an estate plan in place to cover the end-of-life scenarios. To put a damper on this discussion from the outset: you will have an end to your life. I will, too. It is unavoidable. Planning for end-of-life situations does not do anything to bring about the end of your life any faster. You won't "jinx" yourself by engaging in estate planning.
But, hey, if you do pass away without a will or any other estate planning mechanism in place then you can count yourself among most Americans who fall into the same category. Most Americans die without a will. There are several reasons why this may be the case. Ultimately, I want to help those of you who have not begun planning for the end of your life to become motivated to do so. The trouble with doing this is that I don’t know you nor do I know your circumstances.
However, on the plus side, the Law Office of Bryan Fagan has helped so many individuals and families throughout the years that we have a broad base of knowledge from which to operate when it comes to helping people in whatever situation they find themselves. Where you are in your life, what you think in terms of your opinions, and what motivates you are some of the most important questions that we can ask ourselves today. If we can wrap all these questions up into one important question that question boils down to What are your priorities?
Take stock of your priorities and go from there
One of the best exercises that you can engage in when it comes to preparing for the end of your life and estate planning is to think about where estate planning falls in terms of your priorities as an individual. The items and things that we prioritize most heavily in life are those that must be done urgently. Deadline items. If your boss tells you that you need to have the report done by Friday at 2:00 p.m. then you have a deadline to consider when making determinations about what tasks at work, you need to do first. Depending on how far on Friday at 2:00 p.m. you may be, the deadline may be approaching quickly. However, if we assume that it is Thursday afternoon when you are given this deadline it is probably true that you will prioritize this report first before you attend to any other work tasks.
Next, you have activities that are not urgent and do not necessarily have a deadline. Estate planning would probably qualify as one of these activities. There is no "deadline" as far as when you need to have your estate planning complete. Nobody is going to stand over your shoulder and make sure that you have your will done by a certain date and time as we see in a boss/work situation. However, that doesn't make creating a will any less important to you or your family. It's just that you must feel a need to prioritize these types of activities since there is no deadline to push you toward doing so.
Unfortunately, the last two categories of activities often get in the way of completing the activities that we have listed in the prior few paragraphs. The next type of activity does have a deadline but is not important. These are things that you would need to attend to by a certain time but if you don't get around to it the world will not come to an end. Think about something like a television show that you like to watch or submitting your test results to be a contestant on "Jeopardy." Will the world come to an end if you don't want your TV show at a certain time? No, it will be on again and in this day and age, you can probably stream the episode online immediately after it premiers.
The last category of activities involves activities that are unimportant and have no deadline. A dangerous category if I have ever seen one. This is the true time-wasting category where we spend too much time compared to any of the others. Social media, snacking, taking a nap, shopping mindlessly, etc. These are activities that we can do anytime and are unimportant. We tend to view these activities that we perform just to get us through to the next moment in life. Boredom killers, some would call them. However, what these activities end up doing is killing our time that could otherwise do to perform activities in the first and second categories of important items.
The more time that we devoted to activities in the first and second categories, the better off our lives would be. We would make more money, lose more weight, probably be happier and almost certainly be more productive. Specifically, the second category under which estate planning falls is the rarest of important activities yet has no deadline. Draft your will, teach your son to hit a baseball, teach your daughter to ride her bike- there aren’t deadlines, per se, for these activities. However, we all know that if your child reaches age 12 and doesn’t learn how to ride a bike then she may go through life without ever having achieved that skill. We all know adults who can’t swim. Maybe that person grew up in an environment with no pools. However, they almost certainly had access to a pool as an adult. Yet, they're no closer to swimming now than they were as a child.
What is my point? If you don’t set goals for yourself to prioritize activities like creating a will then the odds are good that you may never get around to doing so. The trouble with drafting a will is that there is a deadline, even if there isn’t a date/time deadline. The deadline to draft a will is when you are either mentally incapable of doing so or worse yet- after you have passed away. This is a deadline that impacts all of us. If you cannot set a self-imposed deadline to complete this task not only is there little to motivate you to get it done, but life will impose a deadline on you perhaps sooner than you would have guessed.
What about you? How does your life match up with this example?
Let's create a hypothetical example using you as the main character. You recently got a call from your brother who informed you that your sister just passed away. She was single and had no children, so you took it upon yourself to help manage the estate upon her passing. Your sister did own property as most adults do, so you considered this to be the responsible step to take. You interviewed a handful of estate planning attorneys and ultimately hired one.
Your sister, you later discovered, died without having done any type of estate planning. She did not have a will, and no trust was set up to care for her property after her passing as a result her estate had to go through the probate process due to nothing having been taken care of while your sister had the opportunity to do so. She, like many of us, properly placed estate planning into that category of activities with no hard and fast deadline but which still had plenty of importance tied up in it. As it stood, however, she had no will and you needed to file a probate case to settle her estate, pay creditors and distribute property heirs once it was time to do so.
This became quite a learning experience for you. Not one of those learning experiences that you encounter in life where you see someone make good decisions and then you make a mental note to copy those actions (best practices!) to mimic the behavior of the successful person. Rather, you had a thorough learning experience after having seen the effect of your sister’s lack of action when it came to estate planning. She did not plan and as a result, those around her (you most notably) are suffering the consequences of spending time and the estate's money to go through probate.
That being said- you didn’t take that learning opportunity and apply it to your own life. You sat through court hearings, you talked to creditors and heirs alike. You lost sleep looking through court orders and taking phone calls, but you still didn't engage in any estate planning for yourself. What could prevent you from taking the relatively simple steps necessary to engage in proper estate planning at that point in your life?
You had some circumstances of your own that prevented you from completely focusing on your estate planning. Your daughter and you lost touch about fifteen years ago after fighting some inconsequential subject. She refused to speak to you after that fight and eventually you started to feel like it was in nobody’s interest to continue to try and repair the relationship. The two of you simply lost touch. She went her way, and you went yours and a relationship seemed to be over forever.
Fast forward to this past year. Your sister’s death motivated you to try and repair the relationship with your daughter once and for all. At this point in your life, it became your most important endeavor- that of reconnecting with your daughter and repairing that frayed relationship. You did everything you could. You wrote letters to her last known address. You reached out to her friends on social media to see if they would help broker peace. You drove hours to find her. However, despite all the hard work and diligence on your part, you were unsuccessful in tracking her down and repairing the relationship.
Your lack of success at finding your daughter simply zapped you with any energy or desire to engage in the estate planning process. She was your only child. You were not married. You had no close friends or family. This is a rather bleak picture that I am painting but in an ever more fragmented world that we live in it is possible that this hypothetical situation could mirror your reality. Maybe not everything that I described in this hypothetical example could turn out to be exactly like you live it in your daily life, but it may be close.
A few years later, you pass away. While you didn’t have any family that you were close to you did have that younger brother who lived a few states over. Fortunately, he did have a key to your home and was able to gain entrance upon your passing. When he was looking through your Rolodex of names on your desk, he came across the same estate planning attorney who had helped you handle your sister’s passing a few years back. So, your brother called that lawyer who helped him sort through your estate and see what needed to be done now that you had passed away.
Your brother hadn’t kept up with you too closely, so he was shocked to find out that you had a substantial net worth to your estate. This was intriguing to your brother but after he and the lawyer spoke about the costs that are related to a probate case- legal fees, court costs, and the like- it became clear that your sizeable estate value would be much more modest. Which was a shame, the attorney noted, because the substantial amount of money in your estate could have been much better protected from those types of costs and instead utilized to benefit a church, charity, or family member that was important to you.
Closing thoughts on estate planning
What did we do in today's blog post? First, we helped to create a framework for you to be able to organize your activities. There are four categories of activities that we encounter: important activities with deadlines, important activities without deadlines, unimportant activities with deadlines, and unimportant activities with no deadline. Estate planning would fall into the category of an important activity with no set deadline. We talked about how important it is for each of us to create a self-imposed deadline to get this done.
Next, we went through my hypothetical example of a life that may be like your own where you failed to learn the lesson of why it is important to have a will or engage in proper estate planning. As a result, the people around you suffered, and your estate lost much of the value that you had worked so hard to build up throughout your life. Even if you do not have anyone close to you that you would like to see the benefit because of your passing there is almost always someone or something that can stand to benefit from your estate planning.
Where does that leave us now? I hope that you can tell from the example that I gave you that estate planning does not have to be an all-encompassing activity for you to engage in. Rather, it can be something that preoccupies your time for a certain period before you check that box, complete the activity and move on. You do not have to be the person who lets estate planning take over your life. Rather, put the activity into its proper context, get it done, and then move on to more pressing matters- or watch that television show that you enjoy so much.
Setting up a self-imposed deadline to get it done makes sense. Deadlines spur action. However, the tough part is just to start engaging in estate planning, to begin with. Identify the need to create a will. Collect information. Understand the law. Understand your options. Think critically and then create a deadline to complete the action. This is how you could approach this subject of will creation and end-of-life planning.
A great way to ensure that you follow through with these steps is to hire an experienced probate and estate planning attorney. You may have a lot of property to sort through or very little. You may have a huge family that could stand to benefit from your estate or none. In any event, you have a life that is unique to you. Do not put yourself in a position where a probate judge must determine how to divide your property up. Rather, take advantage of the time that you must create a will or estate plan that functions best for you and your circumstances while you are still able to do so.
Questions about the material contained in today’s blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
If you have any questions about the material contained in today’s blog post, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed estate planning attorneys offer free-of-charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great way for you to learn more about the world of estate planning as well as how your family may be impacted by the filing of a probate case.