We view estate planning and asset protection planning as closely aligned processes. Estate planning is the process of integrating life and death planning to help clients meet their goals, and we build asset protection strategies into our estate planning process. Whether we are protecting a family’s assets as they approach retirement, or helping a business owner preserve years of asset growth for the next generation or assisting an elder client to preserve their limited assets during their final years, we are always helping the client protect their assets while living, and we are also planning how to pass their estate to their heirs.
Estate planning is like wearing seat belts. We buckle our seat belts, but we hope the seat belts won’t be necessary anytime soon. Similarly, when we do estate planning we hope the plans will not be necessary, but we are making the wise choice of being prepared.
Studies show that 60% or higher of Americans fail to do any estate planning, and over 80% of Americans either have no plans or an outdated estate plan. Unfortunately, we find a family may spend more time on their babysitter instructions than they’ll spend on estate planning. At The Bell Law Firm we strive to educate the client helping them to understand the value of their efforts, and we keep the process energized to achieve your target results.
Estate Planning is a Process
Many times estate planning is confused with a one-time, document producing event. Estate planning is not about creating documents, and it certainly is not a one-time event. Instead we believe estate planning is a lifelong process including a series of actions, changes, and updates designed to ultimately accomplish the client’s goals. Our commitment is to be with our clients as they navigate through changes in their life and adjust to modifications in the laws.
Ultimately an estate plan serves as your blueprint of how to handle your assets if you become mentally disabled, and how to manage and distribute your assets upon your death. There is a constant effort to protect your assets along the way. If you don’t have an estate plan, then ultimately your home state (i.e. Missouri, Kansas or another home state) will determine how to manage and distribute your assets. Each state has intestate laws specifically designed to distribute the assets of citizens who did not complete proper estate plans. So clients have a choice, they can proactively build their plan consistent with their needs and goals, or they can accept the state’s general plan and burden their heirs with the eventual result.
The Planning Process
We find four key components of the planning process:
- Find the right attorney
- Invest the proper time to create the right plan for your needs
- Align asset ownership with your estate plan to recognize benefits and maximize asset protection
- Commit to updating and maintaining your plan over your lifetime
A key first step is finding the right attorney to work with you to achieve your desired results. Most clients are looking for an attorney who communicates in plain English, and an attorney that shows they care about you through their actions and their beliefs. Clients typically want a competent professional who encourages open communication and who will not charge you extra for every question or call. Additionally, it is important to find an attorney who follows an organized structure, but who has a flexible process allowing creativity to meet your individual needs.
Once you find the right attorney, then invest the proper amount of time to create your plan. It is critically important to use a counseling-oriented approach in creating your plan, and don’t just focus on creating documents leading to a word processing-oriented approach to your plan. Successful plans include education on the best options available to you, guidance from the attorney on the benefits of different options for your specific needs and then an interactive approach to develop your long-term plan. At that point, then the key documents such as a living trust, a will, powers of attorney and other documents can be created for base estate planning. Additional steps may be recommended for more advanced planning, and usually any advanced planning steps are pursued after the base planning is complete.
A quick summary of the estate planning process at The Bell Law Firm is provided for guidance. Most of our base estate plans are either living trust-based plans or will-based plans. At The Bell Law Firm we primarily do living trust-based plans, but for some clients a will-based plan may be appropriate. In addition to the primary living trust and will documents, our plans are designed as comprehensive for all the other client needs. Other documents commonly included are a general durable power of attorney, a health care power of attorney, a living will and additional documents depending on the client requirements.
After your plan is created, then it is very important to align the ownership of your assets with your plan. Unfortunately, this step is often missed by many clients. If your base planning involves a living trust, then the ownership or beneficiaries of assets will need to be modified. You still remain in control as the trustee of the trust, but the ownership of the assets may need to be changed to provide the benefits of your plan. For example, clients who leave their assets in joint ownership will typically circumvent the benefits of their plan as this form of ownership will take priority over their estate plan. It is critically important for you and the attorney to review your asset ownership, and to be sure it is properly aligned with your plan. This alignment of asset ownership will help you to control costs such as probate upon your passing. At The Bell Law Firm we work directly with the client to align their asset ownership with their individual estate plan requirements, and this is a key part of our process.
Finally, commit to keep your plan updated in the future. This update includes staying educated on changes in the law, being aware of how changes in your life can impact your plan and periodically reviewing your plan with the attorney for necessary changes. Maintaining your estate plan and keeping it aligned with your goals, and changing needs, becomes critically important as time goes by. We will be glad to review with you the different ways we do this with our clients at The Bell Law Firm.