Estate planning, often overwhelming, starts with the basics – Daily News

on Jul25
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These days it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by many things such as politics, gas prices, the gyrating stock market, summer travel, heatwaves and your health.

One thing that shouldn’t overwhelm you is estate planning.

Everyone needs a plan

Everyone in California, age 18 and older, needs at least some basic estate planning documents. Even if you own very little, you still need an advance health care directive and a power of attorney.

These documents designate agents to make decisions for you in the event you become incapacitated.

Incapacity doesn’t just happen to the elderly. Incapacity can occur instantly from an accident, a health crisis or an injury. All you need to know to get these documents in place is who you want to designate to make decisions for you, and generally what though decisions should be.

If you have assets, however, there should be a will and a trust. Often folks put off getting these documents in place either because they don’t like thinking about it, or they don’t know where to begin.

Let’s talk about the latter, and maybe that will make the former easier to handle.

How to get started

Wills and trusts are legal documents with specific requirements both for content and signing. They should be prepared by lawyers with experience and expertise in estate planning.

Usually, an estate planning attorney will have an organizer or questionnaire for you to complete before your initial meeting. This will help you pull together the information needed and will help the attorney spot issues — whether it’s taxes, blended families, special needs, separate property, quasi-community property (yep, there’s such a thing), or retirement plans (which require specific attention in an estate plan).

Information to gather

The organizer will ask you to list important personal information such as your name, any prior names, the names of your spouse and children (where applicable), your citizenship and the citizenship of any beneficiaries (special laws apply to trusts benefiting non-US citizens), and the names and addresses of any people or charities you intend to benefit in your estate plan.

You will also be asked to list your assets — real property, business entities, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, automobiles, collectibles, gold and silver, life insurance and anything else you may own. The value of each item should also be listed, although it does not need to be exact.

Finally, if you have life insurance or retirement plans, it’s a good idea to attach a copy of the beneficiary designation form to the organizer.

Information you don’t need

Notice in the above section I did not say you needed to know who your trustee will be, who your beneficiaries will be, what the terms of the trust will be, or even how much you want to leave to who?

That’s because lawyers aren’t scribes; they’re counselors. Our job isn’t to simply write down what you say and have you sign it. (That’s a document preparation service, usually identified by the neon sign in the window, and a classic case of “you get what you pay for.”)

A good estate planning lawyer will discuss your financial and family situation and offer options for a plan that will fit your needs.

As I often say to my clients, you will do an estate plan a few times in your life (as your life changes, and laws change, so should your estate plan).

An experienced estate planning attorney will have done hundreds, if not thousands of plans. It’s our job to offer solutions for the issues that concern you (and perhaps some you haven’t thought of yet) — whether that’s a kid who’s “not so good with money,” a blended family where you need to balance the needs of a surviving spouse with the expectations of the children from a prior marriage, a pet you want cared for (California allows for pet trusts and it doesn’t require huge sums), or your concerns about who to choose to act as your trustee or power of attorney.

There are many possible solutions, and you aren’t required to know them before you move ahead with your estate planning, any more than you are required to know your diagnosis before you see your doctor. Let the professionals help you. It’s what we do. And much like with doctors, things only get worse if you wait too long.

If you are an adult, you know generally what you own, your name and address, and the names of your spouse and children or any other beneficiaries you’d like to include in your plan (Rover, too!). Thus, you’re ready to move ahead with your estate planning. See? That wasn’t overwhelming at all.

Teresa J. Rhyne is an attorney practicing in estate planning and trust administration in Riverside and Paso Robles, CA. She is also the #1 New York Times bestselling author of “The Dog Lived (and So Will I)” and “Poppy in The Wild.”  You can reach her at

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