In recent years (and especially since the Internet became a ubiquitous presence in our daily lives), purveyors of “do-it-yourself” legal forms have proliferated. Among them are ones offering “fill in the blank” wills, living trusts and other estate planning documents. Have these products made estate planning lawyers obsolete? I believe for the majority of individuals, whether wealthy or of more modest means, true estate planning involves more than just filling in blanks in some “one size fits all” forms.
Do Not Fall for Common Misconceptions
Many new clients come to me with the idea that “estate planning” (at least for everyone other than the very wealthy) means only they should have a will or trust to pass property to their heirs after they are gone. It is only after we discuss their goals and wishes in detail that they begin to see the peace of mind and, possibly, financial benefits that a more comprehensive estate plan can offer.
Another common misconception is that estate planning is of benefit only to older individuals. In fact, the goals of a good estate plan are relevant at any age – minimizing taxes, distributing property as you wish (rather than as the law dictates) and preparing for the possibility of a temporary or permanent disability or terminal illness.
Wills and Trusts
It is true that virtually any estate plan should include one of these documents. But, while Pennsylvania law allows individuals discretion as to how they dispose of their property, it is stricter with regard to the way in which they do so. There are many examples of how seemingly minor errors in drafting, a misplaced signature or the use of vague language resulted in litigation that outlived the decedent by many years. Before drafting either a will or trust, I make sure I have complete and accurate information about the client and his or her property. This information helps ensure that I can carry out the client’s true wishes.
Powers of Attorney and “living Wills”
Proper estate planning can also help direct the management of your assets and your personal and medical care during your lifetime. I can prepare a property power of attorney that allows you to name a trusted relative or friend to manage your property and finances. If properly worded, this authority can continue even if you later become mentally incapacitated. This can avoid the arduous process of a guardianship appointment.
Pennsylvania law recognizes two additional documents that should be part of every estate plan. The first, a medical power of attorney, allows you to appoint an agent to make decisions about medical treatment if you are temporarily unable to do so. The second is an “advance health care directive”, sometimes (misleadingly) called a “living will. When properly prepared, this document describes in detail your instructions regarding the use of life support and resuscitation measures if you become terminally ill and can no longer express those desires.
While not all individuals spend their declining years in nursing homes, for those who do, the expense is substantial, and can often significantly reduce or even deplete the resident’s estate. An experienced estate planning lawyer can advise clients of any age regarding strategies to minimize this impact.
If you are looking for an experienced estate planning attorney near Pittsburgh, please give my office a call.
NOTE: This is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.