The Role of an Attorney in Estate Planning

The phrase “estate planning” has been used in so many different connotations over the last several years that its meaning is often confused. Financial planners use the term primarily to describe investment strategies. Insurance professionals incorporate the term as they provide advice and product related to the use of various insurance policies to accumulate and protect wealth. CPAs sometimes incorporate the term as a part of income tax planning.

My effort today, and much of the focus of this blog, is to describe what an attorney means when he or she says that they provide “estate planning” services, and how this type of planning can help protect you and your family.

I have been an estate planning attorney for more than 30 years. Two of the most important tasks of an estate planning lawyer are to plan for dire circumstances: the risk of the client’s future disability, and the eventual death of the client. The attorney should leave to other professionals the offering of general investment advice and consideration of any appropriate product sales, such as life insurance, annuities, disability insurance, long-term care insurance, etc.

Unfortunately, a person’s risk of significant cognitive impairment doubles about every five years after a he or she reaches 65 years of age. After age 85, the risk is approximately 50%. The first order of business, then, for an estate planning attorney is to help the client plan for the need for financial management, and life care management, if he or she becomes cognitively disabled. The risk of cognitive impairment in the next several years is much greater than the risk of death, and the attorney’s role in estate planning should take careful note of that fact.

Secondly, the estate planning lawyer’s role is to help his client plan for his or her eventual death. Often there is more to that task than first meets the eye. A good estate planning lawyer will need to have extensive discussions with their client in order to consider what options may be desirable. In fact, an excellent measure of the skill of the attorney is the time that he or she takes to discuss their objectives upon death.

Often the client’s initial reaction is simply to leave the assets to their loved ones immediately, with no ongoing limitations. And, commonly, that is exactly what the client chooses to do, after detailed discussions with the attorney. Equally as frequently, however, the client will decide to leave their net worth to their loved ones while working to limit losses resulting from a beneficiary’s divorce, claims of the beneficiary’s creditors, or the beneficiary’s own inability to effectively manage finances. There are a multitude of choices to consider when planning for one’s own death, and an essential role of an estate planning attorney is to discuss with his client each option that may be appropriate.

It is my hope that this blog will shed light on the tremendous advantages of a well thought out estate plan, how it can protect you and your family, and what to expect from an attorney who does thorough, and careful, work for their client.

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