By attorney Robert Fleming
For almost four decades, we’ve been waiting for the client who wants a complicated will. We’re still waiting.
We hear the “I only want a simple will” request often. What clients really mean, of course, is “I want a cheap will.” That is, they don’t want to pay a lot for the legal advice or preparation of elaborate documents.
Our favorite variation is the client who wants a simple will, then tells us their assets are straightforward and their family situation ordinary. You know — the half-interest in a summer cabin in another state, the oil and gas interests in two other states and the closely-held family corporation that is worth somewhere between $1,000 and $10,000,000. And family situation? You know — one child has a developmental disability, another a drinking problem and the third is married to a spendthrift. But we’re just going to disinherit one, split things between the other two and trust them to work everything out.
We send a questionnaire to our prospective estate planning clients, so that we can figure out at least some of the possible issues during our first meeting — which is much more productive if we have the information at hand. Clients sometimes show up without having filled out the questionnaire, since they aren’t sure they want to hire us (hah! who wouldn’t want to hire us?) and they don’t want to go through the trouble of collecting information. More dangerous, though, are the clients who intentionally leave some of their assets off the questionnaire — in a misguided attempt, we suspect, to minimize the cost of their estate planning. That’s a little like not mentioning to the dentist that you have a persistent and painful temperature sensitivity on one tooth, hoping that it won’t need any expensive work.
Why do we even care about what assets you own? Isn’t it because we can charge you more if we know how wealthy you are?
We need to know about your assets to figure out whether you have an estate tax issue. Are you pretty sure you aren’t worth the $5 million that is required before federal estate tax concerns? OK — but what about state estate taxes? Though Arizona doesn’t have one, the state where you have that summer cabin might impose one. And have you added in the face value of your life insurance policies? Also the trust your grandfather left for you, which you don’t think of as “yours”? Also the possible inheritance from your parents? Those questions are all on the questionnaire, so that we can discuss them with you.
One of the principal questions we are going to talk about with you is whether you should have a living trust. Don’t worry — we’re not going to order you to do anything. But we do want to be able to give you a realistic estimate of the cost of probating your estate, and what you might reasonably do to avoid or minimize that cost. Without good information, we can’t give you either estimate.
There are real costs associated with choosing a “simple” will. We want to be able to estimate those for you, so that you can make informed decisions. By the end of our initial conversation, we will almost certainly be able to give you a flat-fee estimate of the cost of preparing your estate plan, with at least a couple variations for you to consider. Then you can decide how much simplicity you can afford.
How often do our clients end up with what might be called a simple will? If we get to define “simple,” our estimate is about half the time — or perhaps slightly less often than that. But even clients with those simple wills also have financial powers of attorney, health care powers of attorney (with living will provisions) and an instruction letter; the entire product of our representation will almost always amount to at least a dozen pages of lawyer language. We’ll also provide a translation/guide to the documents, and we are very interested in helping you to understand the options, your choices and the documents themselves; we don’t charge more for answering questions, and we like to get the opportunity.
A word about flat fees: almost all of our estate planning is done on a “flat-fee” basis. We will quote you a fee in our initial consultation, and that’s what we will charge. Do you need four drafts and extensive revisions? No additional cost. Do you love the first draft, and need no changes? Great — we got it right. But we don’t reduce our fee for doing a good job on the first pass, either. We think that arrangement makes it easy and comfortable for both of us. You get as many appointments, revisions and discussions as you need. We get the comfort of knowing that we heard all your concerns and questions, and that we’ve had an opportunity to address everything.
Even a short, inexpensive will is not simple. It is a profound document, and it isn’t even possible to figure out what it ought to say until we’ve talked through some of the issues.
Oh, and whether your estate plan is simple or complex, inexpensive or less inexpensive, it needs to be reviewed and (probably) revised every five years or so. But that’s different concern we need to grapple with.
Posted by: Steven Maimes, The Trust Advisor