12 Questions to Ask an Estate Planning Attorney BEFORE Working With Them

slider-1-300x181I often get asked, “How much does it cost to do an estate plan?”

It’s difficult to answer that question without understanding more about your family, your situation, and explaining more about our process.

If you called a contractor and said, “I want to build a house. How much will it cost?” Would he be able to say right away? Not if he’s a good contractor. There are too many variables when it comes to building a house to quote a flat rate to build one. In the same way, the cost of an estate plan depends on the type of plan you create and the goals you are trying to accomplish.

We understand that you need to know the cost before making a decision (and we make sure ALL of our clients clearly know the cost before moving forward), but before you start talking about cost, there are some important questions to ask the attorney first, because there are other vitally important factors to consider when choosing an attorney to help create an effective estate plan.

​Here are 12 questions to ask an Estate Planning attorney BEFORE Asking About Cost
1. Do you regularly deal with estate planning? What other areas of practice do you have? We believe it’s best if an attorney focuses on estate planning. That’s why I set up our firm the way I did. I wanted a group of people dedicated ONLY to estate planning so we could create the most effective plans possible for the families we serve.

2. How do you define estate planning? What is your counseling philosophy? Some attorneys see their primary role as filling in the blanks on a document. You’ll notice I sometimes use the phrase “Counselor-at-Law” after my name, and that’s important because it IS what we do. We help guide our clients to make the best choices possible for their unique situation.

3. How do you use technology to create customized wills and trusts? While it’s true you don’t want a boilerplate will (and some attorneys use technology to just fill in the blanks), there are things that technology can do to help us create better and more accurate plans for our clients.

4. Do you have a system in place to insure that each client is approached on an individual basis with their unique needs being addressed?

5. How can I be sure my plan will work the way I expect it to after I’m gone? It’s a dirty little secret of the industry, but many attorneys make their money after the plan they created doesn’t work properly and moves into probate.

6. Are you capable of supporting my choices in conversations with aging parents or adult children and grandchildren if I need it? Some of these conversations are very difficult. It helps to have an experienced 3rd party to help facilitate them.

7. How will you coordinate my assets and finances with my legal plan? Some attorneys help create a plan, but then don’t take the next step necessary to make sure the plan will work properly, and one of the most important aspects of this is asset coordination. It’s so important, we have TWO people in our office dedicated to it.

8. Will you work closely with my other advisors? In order to create the most effective plan possible, it is important that your financial advisors, CPAs, attorney, etc. work together to make sure everyone sees an accurate big picture so your plan can address everything it should.

9. How will I keep my estate plan up to date? Is it up to me to call you when I think I need to make changes? Or do you have a system to make sure my plan stays current? 

10. What is your record with regards to probate? What percentage of your trust-based plans wind up in probate? (Remember #5 above?)

11. What happens if something happens to you? Are there other attorneys who will help? Do you have a contingency plan?

12. Do you have experienced staff to help with my planning? The staff will be key in your dealings with the firm, so you want them to be as top-notch as the attorney.

If you’re dealing with a top-notch professional — one who provides quality, custom services to each and every client and values integrity above all else — then they cannot give you an honest answer about how much it costs for an estate plan without a thorough assessment of your unique circumstances.

This is why we encourage everyone to attend our free upcoming seminar, “Don’t Leave Your Family At Risk! on Tuesday, May 8th at 6:00 pm EDT at City Gate Advisors in Greensboro, NC.

Not everyone is a good fit to work with us. We tend to do things differently around here, and we want to be sure people are comfortable with ALL aspects of planning before moving forward. The more you trust us and the better educated you are about planning, the better job we can do protecting you and your family.

If you’ve been thinking about planning, but are still hesitating, we encourage you to come to our next workshop. Just call (336) 373-9877 to save yourself a spot. And if you’ve already created a plan with us, but would like to encourage your friends or family to start planning, feel free to forward them this email or give us a review about what you liked on social media. This will help others gain the courage to get started.

How to have the Money Talk

friends-411180_960_720Whether you consider yourself wealthy or not, you need to think about how (and when) you’ll have the Money Talk with your children, whether they’re little kids, tweens, teens, or already adults. The Wall Street Journal article “The Best Way for Wealthy Parents to Talk to Children About Family Money” offers guidelines for how and when “the money talk” should take place. Based on interviews with multiple financial experts, the article suggests these discussions should happen in three stages during the child’s lifetime. Here, we’re showing you how each of these three stages apply to your family wealth as a whole, regardless of how much—or how little—money you have at the moment:

Tweens and teens

The tween years (ages 10-12) are a good time to start talking with your children about your family wealth. At this age, the discussion should be aimed at letting your children know that family wealth is not just the amount of money that your family has, but involves all of the family resources. Time, energy, attention, and money (TEAM) are the resources that make up your family wealth. With this in mind, use one day over a coming weekend to create a Family Wealth Inventory with your tween or teen children. Inventory all of the family’s TEAM resources, along with other intangibles, such as values, insights, as well as stories and experiences you want considered as part of the Family Wealth bank. This is an ideal time to tell them the family story, talking about how you and their other relatives worked your way to the family wealth you have now, how decisions have been made from one generation to the next regarding family wealth, and how you hope decisions will be made in the future. Around ages 10 to 12, you can also start talking to your children about the fact that one day you won’t be here, your intentions surrounding what you plan to pass on to them (beyond just money) and how you plan to pass it on, as well as what they choose to do with the inheritance they’re receiving. Again, the inheritance they’re receiving is not just the money you’re leaving—it also involves your family genetics, epigenetics, values, ancestry, connections, knowledge, and much more.

In their 20s

If you haven’t yet begun talking to your children about your family wealth, you should start now. And if you’ve already begun the conversations, make sure to continue talking to them during this important stage of their life. Once they’ve moved out of the home, they need to begin thinking about their own family wealth, including setting up their own legal documents, so if something happens to them, you won’t get stuck in court or conflict. They also need to know whether you plan to offer them financial assistance during their lifetime, along with what the parameters of this assistance are and why you’ve set things up this way. Additionally, this is an ideal time to start discussing your own plans for retirement and whether or not you’ll need any financial support from them later on in their life. If you haven’t already shared your estate plan with your children—including where to find it, why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made, and introduced them to your family lawyer—this is the time to do that as well.

In their 30s and 40s

By their 30s, your children should be ready to be fully involved in your family wealth. This would be the perfect time to have a family meeting facilitated by us, if you haven’t done so already. You can kick-start the talk by reading from a letter you’ve written that outlines the hopes you have for your family wealth, both now and in the future. Since you’ll likely be nearing or in retirement at this stage, it’s important that you eventually discuss the actual value of the family’s wealth and detail your wishes about passing it on. At this age, you never know how much time you have left to prepare your children to effectively manage the money you’ve spent your entire life accumulating. By now, you definitely want your children to know if they should plan to provide financial support for you. At the same time, you may want to start looking at how you can pass on what you do have during your lifetime, instead of waiting until death, so you can invest in creating more family wealth with your children together.  As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can not only help facilitate these discussions, we can also provide estate planning strategies to help your children become creators of more family wealth, instead of people who you might be afraid will squander what you’ve created. Indeed, we can help you set up structures that incentivize them to invest and grow their inheritance, rather than waste it. Contact us today to learn more.

This article is a service of Susan Hunt, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Estate Planning Tips for Ensuring Your Pets Are Properly Cared For

petloveIt’s sad but true that many pets end up in shelters after their owner dies or becomes incapacitated. In fact, the Humane Society estimates that between 100,00 to 500,000 pets are placed in shelters each year for exactly this reason, and a large number of these animals are ultimately euthanized. Whether we like it or not, the law considers pets to be nothing more than personal property just like cars, furniture, and electronic devices. In light of this cold reality, it’s vital that you provide for your pet’s future care through estate planning, so when you die or if you become incapacitated, your beloved friend won’t wind up in a shelter or worse. The following tips offer helpful advice to ensure your faithful companion receives the best possible care when you’re no longer able to do it yourself.

Identify a new caregiver for your pet

Selecting a trustworthy caregiver is the first—and most important—step in protecting your pet(s) through estate planning. Many people assume their children, relatives, or friends will be suitable guardians, and these folks may even tell you as much in conversation. But the reality is, properly caring for most pets is a major commitment of time, emotion, and finances. It’s best to come up with a list of potential candidates, and then have a frank talk with each of them, discussing the extent of care your pet requires and whether they have any personal issues (allergies, housing, other pets) that might prevent them from providing the necessary care. If you don’t know any suitable caregivers, charitable groups, such as the Safe Haven® Surviving Pet Care Program, can provide for your pet in the event of your death or incapacity.

Get it in writing

Once you’ve chosen a guardian—along with one or two alternates in case something happens to your top choice—outline all of your pet’s care requirements, listing its health issues, dietary concerns, medications, etc. These requirements should be indicated within a properly drafted legal document to ensure that your wishes are properly carried out and enforceable. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help you create a legally binding agreement detailing your pet’s specific needs, which can be easily added to your other estate planning documents.

Provide funding for your pet’s continued care

All pets have basic food, shelter, and medical needs, and these needs can be quite expensive, depending on the animal’s age and health. And if you’re like most pet owners, you probably want your pet to receive more than just the bare necessities, so it’s imperative that you leave enough money to cover all such expenses. Be sure to not only provide clear, detailed instructions on how your pet should be taken care of in your estate plan, but also include the necessary funding to cover these costs. And be sure you think about all of your pet’s future needs, including any extra services—grooming, boarding, and walking services—when calculating these expenses.

Set up a pet trust

Because pet care can be quite complicated and costly, the best way to ensure your wishes are properly carried out is to set up a pet trust. While it’s possible to leave care instructions and funding for your pet in a will, a will cannot guarantee the new caregiver will use the funds properly or even that they’ll care for your pet at all. Indeed, a person who’s left your pet in a will can simply drop the animal off at a local shelter and keep the money for themselves. A pet trust, on the other hand, allows you to lay out detailed rules for exactly how the trust’s funds can be used. To ensure your wishes are accurately carried out, you should name someone other than the caregiver as trustee, so this person can manage the funds and make sure they’re only used as spelled out by the rules you’ve created. While leaving assets in a pet trust is fairly simple, creating a properly drafted trust that includes all of the necessary terms can be quite complex. Given this, you should work with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to be certain that all of the necessary elements are in place to ensure your pet will continue to receive the love and care it deserves if you aren’t around to do it.

This article is a service of Susan Hunt, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Parental Rights for Same-Gender Couples

Rainbow_flag_and_blue_skies (1)In 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-gender couples had the right to marry, the LGBTQ community celebrated a huge victory. With the issue of marriage settled, it looked as if same-gender couples were finally going to have equal standing with heterosexual couples in the eyes of the law.

But while same-gender couples now have nearly all of the same matrimonial rights as heterosexual couples, there is one key right that’s still up in the air—the automatic right to be legal parents. Known as “marital presumption,” this right deems that when a married man and woman have a child, they’re both automatically considered legal parents of the child.

While parental rights are automatically bestowed upon the biological parent of a child in a same-gender couple, the non-biological spouse/parent still faces a host of legal complications and challenges. Because the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the specific issue of the parental rights of non-biological spouses/parents in a same-gender marriage, there is a tangled, often-contradictory, web of state laws governing such rights.

If you’re a same-gender couple, for example, some states and courts may not consider you a legal parent based solely on your marriage. And even in places where there are some protections under the law, same-gender couples can still experience discrimination and difficulty gaining all the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples. Indeed, it’s a real possibility that you could have total legal rights as a non-biological parent in one state, but drive across the border to a neighboring state and be a complete stranger to your child in the eyes of the law.

Given the murky nature of state laws, most legal experts advise same-gender couples that the best way to ensure you have full rights as a non-biological parent in every state is to obtain a second-parent adoption. The Supreme Court has ruled that the adoptive parental rights granted in one state must be respected in all states.

However, it can be extremely difficult for married same-gender couples even to adopt. In fact, seven states currently permit employees of state-licensed adoption agencies to refuse to grant an adoption if doing so violates their religious beliefs. In other states, however, the state law specifically forbids such discrimination.

What’s more, second-parent adoptions are often costly, averaging about $4,000 nationally. They can also be extremely time-consuming and laborious, requiring the non-biological parent to jump through a range of legal hoops, including physicals, blood work, fingerprinting, along with additional state and FBI background checks.

Some states even mandate home visits from social workers to see if a “suitable environment” exists for the child. All of this can be a major inconvenience at the very least and downright demeaning in other cases.

That said, many people are not aware that nearly the same parental rights for same-gender couples can be achieved by using a combination of estate planning and family law protections without the requirement of second-parent adoption. Moreover, gaining such rights in this manner will involve far less—if any—background screening and/or additional legal obstacles.

As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we offer a number of unique legal services to provide a non-biological, same-gender parent with as many parental rights as possible, without a full adoption.

Starting with our proprietary Kids Protection Plan®, couples can name the non-biological parent as a legal guardian of the child, both for the short-term and the long-term, while confidentially excluding anyone the biological parent thinks may challenge their wishes.

That way, if the biological parent becomes incapacitated or dies, his or her wishes are clearly known and stated, so the court can do what the parent would’ve wanted and keep the child in the non-biological parent’s care.

Beyond that, there are several other legal protections—living trusts, power of attorney, and health care directives—that a Personal Family Lawyer® can grant to offer the non-biological parent additional rights. Finally, we also create what are known as “co-parenting agreements,” legally binding arrangements that stipulate exactly how the child will be raised, what responsibility each partner has toward the child, and what kind of rights would exist if the couple splits or goes through a divorce.

If you’re in a same-gender marriage or in a committed partnership, and you want that person to stay in relationship with your kids (or yourself) should you become incapacitated, or you want that person financially provided for if you die, contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to see what kind of protections we can help you put in place.

This article is a service of Susan Hunt, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.


How Will the New Tax Law Affect Your Family?

taxes-1015399_960_720President Trump signed the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act bill into law on December 22, 2017, and the law includes a number of historic changes to the federal tax code. However, the vast majority of the most dramatic changes in the new tax law are aimed at business taxation, not individual taxpayers.

That said, there are several fairly significant changes to personal income tax laws, which we’ve highlighted below. But keep in mind, unlike the new business tax laws, which are permanent, nearly everything listed here for personal taxes sunsets after 2025 and will revert to the 2017 code in 2026 unless Congress extends the changes.

Given this, it’s important that you contact your Personal Family Lawyer® as soon as possible to take advantage of any new tax-saving strategies before these new provisions sunset.

Higher standard deduction

The standard deduction increases to $24,000 for joint filers, $12,000 for single taxpayers, and $18,000 for heads of households, all adjusted for inflation. The law also eliminates nearly all personal exemptions, however, so those with dependents won’t see quite as much savings.

Note that if you’re a 1099 wage earner, regardless of how much you earn, you pay approximately 15% of your earnings toward payroll taxes, which would otherwise be covered by your employer and taken out of your paycheck. So even though the standard deduction has increased, if you’re a 1099/ independent contractor, you may still face a big tax bill if you’re not structured properly. Contact us if you need help with this.

Changes to mortgage interest deduction

For existing mortgages the limit on deducting interest on up to $1 million of mortgage interest stays the same. Deductible mortgage interest for new mortgages taken on after December 15, 2017, however, is now capped at $750,000. Additionally, homeowners may no longer claim a deduction for existing and new interest on home equity loans.

Increased child tax credit

The child tax credit increases up to $2,000 per child, and the first $1,400 is refundable, meaning the credit could reduce your tax liability to zero, and you would still receive a tax refund. The cut off for the tax credit increases to $400,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Expanded estate tax exemption

The estate tax exemption increases to $11.2 million for individuals and $22.4 million for couples, indexed for inflation. The rate for those estates still subject to taxation remains at 40%. However, don’t let this increase lead you to believe you don’t need to handle your estate planning if your estate is less than $11 million. Estate planning is not just about taxes.  It’s what keeps your family out of court and out of conflict, it’s what protects you and your family, it’s how you protect your assets. Very few people will be impacted by the estate tax, but everyone’s family is at risk for heartache, court and conflict.

Eliminated state and local income tax deductions

State and local income tax deductions are repealed. This means that you will pay your state and local income taxes from after-tax income. However, you’ll be able to deduct up to $10,000 for state and local property taxes paid.

Changes to medical expense deduction

Under the new tax law, taxpayers can deduct any medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of their adjusted gross income in 2017 and 2018. But this new deduction level sunsets on Jan. 1, 2019, when it will revert back to the previous level of 10%.

Whether the Tax Cuts and Jobs act results in tax cuts for your family or an increased tax bill is greatly dependent on how you’ve structured your financial affairs. Given this, if you’ve not yet had a Family Wealth Planning Session with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, now is the time to do it. After your Family Wealth Planning Session, we’d be happy to meet with you, your financial advisor and your CPA to strategize how to achieve the most tax savings for your family in the years to come.

This article is a service of Susan Hunt, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.