In the estate planning area, I help my clients prepare for the unpleasant events that are an inevitable part of our lives. Many people are uncomfortable considering their own mortality and the possibility of death or serious illness. I believe that sensible, practical planning for those events can eliminate some of the stress associated with those thoughts so we can relax a little more and enjoy our lives. We are all going to pass away, sooner or later, and many of us will need assistance making healthcare or financial decisions at some point in our lives. I help my clients plan for those events. It can be a huge relief to know that you have formalized your wishes for your estate. It can also be a comfort to know that you have legally designated an individual to make healthcare and financial decisions for you if you are incapacitated and have explicitly set out in advance the health care treatments you desire in case you are unable to make your wishes known.
You should have at least three pieces to your estate plan – 1) a will; 2) a combined healthcare power of attorney and living will; and 3) a general power of attorney. Your will specifies who receives your assets when you die and who you want to handle your estate. It can include specific gifts to individuals or institutions and provisions for a trusted individual to care for your children. Without a will, your estate is decided according to Pennsylvania law and the result may be much different than what you would choose. Your living will establishes the extent to which you want certain medical procedures if you are unable to express those wishes and makes those limits clear so your loved ones do not have to guess what you would want. Your healthcare power of attorney designates an individual or individuals to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to make those decisions. Your general power of attorney designates an individual or individuals to handle your financial matters if you are incapacitated and unable to do so. By designating someone to make your healthcare and financial decisions if you are unable to do so, you minimize the possibility of conflict between your loved ones as they try to decide who should handle those decisions.
It may be a good idea to have additional estate planning documents, such as a trust, depending on your specific situation. The more you plan ahead for these situations, the less your loved ones will need to decide.
Unmarried couples have additional estate planning needs, since there is no “default” in the law that recognizes their personal relationship. Unmarried couples do not automatically inherit property from each other, are not necessarily consulted regarding their partner’s healthcare decisions and have no automatic legal authority to make healthcare or financial decisions for their incapacitated partner. Without specific estate planning and implementation, unmarried couples are legally treated as business partners at best and strangers at worst, depending on exactly what area you are considering. Therefore, it is extremely important that unmarried couples take the necessary steps to put these provisions in place before they are needed.
I usually charge a flat fee for preparing estate plans, depending on the extent of the work. That way my clients know up front how much they are investing for my services and what results to expect. In my opinion, the time, money and energy spent implementing a solid estate plan is a wise investment. My office is conveniently located for most central Pennsylvania residents, including clients from Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey, York and surrounding communities. Although I routinely meet with clients at my office to prepare estate planning documents, I will travel to clients in Cumberland, Dauphin, York and other counties when necessary to serve their needs.
Estate plans should be reviewed and revised, if necessary, on a regular basis. Life changes such as marriage, divorce, having children and cohabitation can alter the effects of existing estate plans, so it is important to revisit these documents with your attorney on a regular basis.
If an individual dies with a valid will, his or her estate is handled by the executor named in that will. If an individual dies without a will, his or her estate is handled by the administrator appointed by the court. In addition to other duties, the executor or administrator is responsible for 1) identifying, gathering and preserving the assets of the estate; 2) identifying and notifying potential beneficiaries and potential creditors of the estate; 3) paying the estate creditors and distributing assets to the beneficiaries; and 4) filing estate inventories and tax returns. In addition, there may be trusts to establish, property to have appraised or sold and possible conflicts among family members or others and the executor or administrator will be involved in all of those situations. The process of handling an estate is called probate.
Administering an estate can be time-consuming and complicated. Most individuals have never handled this situation before. The guidance of an experienced attorney can make the process more manageable for the executor or administrator. I seek to help my estate administration clients through the probate process by clearly explaining how the process works, what to expect and by assisting with the necessary administration duties.