I recently performed a random survey (which may, or may not have happened on Facebook). I asked the question: “At what age do you think you should meet with an Estate Planning Attorney?”
The answers were very thoughtful, and I learned a lot about what people think of estate planning. So what is the right answer? When should someone seek the advice of an estate planning attorney?
What Estate Planning Is … and Isn’t
I promise to answer the question, but first, let me start with a quick overview of what estate planning really is (and is not).
As the name indicates, estate planning includes plans about how to transfer your assets (your “estate”) at death or incapacity. Did you catch that last word? Incapacity. Many people forget about this one. Not only should you plan how you want to distribute your estate at your death, but you should also plan how to manage your estate while you are still alive but unable to make your own legal decisions due to an incapacitating illness or injury. Questions like: “Who will help me apply for social security disability?” or “Who will help me manage my household expenses?” are questions that could apply to someone old, young, rich, poor or in between.
On the other hand, the phrase “estate planning” can be misleading because it encompasses much more than just planning for the management or transfer of one’s assets at death or incapacity. For example, your kids are not assets, but a thorough estate plan will nominate guardians of your choosing to step in if something unthinkable happens to you. Also, a good estate plan will include health care powers of attorney (along with a “living will”) that outlines things like: who you want to make health care choices for you and how you would like end-of-life decisions handled.
Finally, maybe it would help to think of estate planning as a living, breathing thing. Something that will grow and evolve as your life circumstances change over time.
So, here is my answer: You should probably meet with an estate planning attorney multiple times throughout your life. Here are some major milestones to keep in mind:
When You Turn 18
Here in Arizona, once you turn 18, your parents do not have legal authority to make your choices for you. If something happens to you and you are temporarily or permanently unable to make your own choices (due to an illness or injury), no one would be able to step in on your behalf without jumping through difficult, stressful and time-consuming hoops. At 18, you probably don’t have much of an estate yet, so your estate plan would probably include: a financial power of attorney, a health care power of attorney, and living will. And the good news is, these documents don’t require much “planning” and therefore are relatively inexpensive. (See my blog “Three Documents You Need When Your Son or Daughter Turns 18 ‘ ”)
When You Finish College
Really, any time you start accumulating a bit of money (even a few thousand dollars), it might be time to help those you care about avoid the heartaches and headaches required to manage your affairs in the event of your death or incapacity. At the very least, it is probably time to set up a will.
When You Have Kids
New parents have a lot to think about, but not as much time or energy as they would like! While it’s no fun to think about leaving your kids as orphans, it does happen. The next step here would probably be to formally nominate a guardian either in an updated will or as a stand-alone document. For many parents, it also makes sense to set up a revocable living trust that can last beyond their deaths to help care for their children until they reach adulthood. (See my blog “Using a Tailored Living Trust to Protect Family‘ ”)
Other life events can trigger a need to revisit your estate plan. (For examples, see my blog “9 Reasons to Update Your Estate Plan.”)
As you can see, there really isn’t one right answer to the question, “At what age do you think you should meet with an Estate Planning Attorney?” It is more about starting early and making adjustments along the way. It’s really, as they say, a journey and not a destination. Feel free to contact me here at the office and we can get started on your plan.