Estate Planning Checklist for Initial Consult

Preparing to have initial discussions with an estate planning attorney is never an easy thing to do. People never want to think about their own death, and setting up an estate plan requires you to do just that. There is no doubt consultations with estate planning attorneys will always result in questions that one has never considered before. However, there are several things you can do to prepare prior to the consultation that will not only make your meeting with an estate planning attorney the most productive, but will result in a better and more thorough understanding of your estate planning goals. This is not limited to basic information gathering, but also taking into consideration situations that could arise should you pass away without a proper plan in place. The following is a checklist you should consider preparing to either bring with you or be ready to discuss prior to your consultation with an estate planning attorney.

1. Biographical/Contact Information for you and your family.

So this one seems fairly obvious, but it is important to make sure that you have updated contact information for you, your spouse/partner, children, and even siblings and parents. This includes full names, addresses, phone numbers, and dates of birth for your spouse/partner and child(ren). Depending on who you choose as your designated agents in your estate plan, some or all of this information will be incorporated into your estate planning documents.

2. Itemized list of your financial accounts and other non-liquid assets.

Another one that seems fairly obvious, but it is important for the estate planner to know the specific types of financial accounts you have and their details, including the name of the financial institution they are located at, what type of accounts they are, approximate values, who owns them, and whether there are any beneficiary designations on the accounts. These pieces of information are crucial for your estate planning attorney for several reasons. First, knowing the approximate value of your assets can help calculate your gross estate, which will assist the attorney in determining what the most appropriate estate plan for you looks like (i.e. will, revocable trust, irrevocable trust, etc.). Second, it gives the estate planning attorney any indications as to whether or not special tax considerations need to be taken into account in drafting your estate plan. Third, it provides a “starting point” for the attorney if and when the unfortunate day comes where your personal representative or trustee needs assistance with administration of your estate.

Information regarding non-liquid assets are equally important to bring to the initial consultation as well, particularly if they are titled assets. Information regarding any real estate you own, whether it’s your homestead, cabin, or commercial property are essential (i.e. copy of deed, address, legal description, property tax statement, etc.). The attorney needs this information if these assets need to be retitled into the name of a trust, or if a transfer on death deed is appropriate. Other non-liquid assets that would be helpful to the estate planner include vehicles, whether or not recreational, and lists of personal property items that is of significant monetary or sentimental value to you.

3. Detailed information about any closely held business ownership interests.

Small business owners need to plan for the transition of their ownership interests in their estate plan. If you don’t have an estate plan in place, the Minnesota statutes guide who inherits your business when you die. Depending on the type of business you own and the relationships you have built with others, you may not want the statutes to dictate who inherits your business. This is why planning for business succession in your estate plan is crucial. Things you should consider bringing to the estate planning attorney are corporate documents, including the Articles of Incorporation or Articles of Organization, any recent valuations the company has had, and whether the company has a Shareholder/Membership Agreement or a “Buy-Sell” Agreement. These documents may already dictate how your ownership interests pass upon your death.

4. Itemized list of Current Debts and Liabilities.

You should be prepared to give your estate planning attorney a list of all current debts and liabilities you have, including the creditor’s name, a description of the type of debt, and approximate value. This information serves a couple of purposes First, these values aid in determining your net estate, which ultimately assist the attorney in determining whether you need to worry about estate tax consequences. Second, it also gives the attorney an idea as to where your loved ones should start looking for creditors’ claims in the event of your death.

5. A list of professional advisors you currently work with.

Developing an effective estate plan does not only include working with an estate planning attorney. It includes several professional advisors, including but not limited to accountants, financial advisors, and insurance agents. These advisors play a key role in determining how your wealth is managed, and your estate planner needs to be able to communicate with each of these professionals in order to construct an estate plan that is going to be the most effective for you. Therefore, at your initial consultation, you should be prepared to share the names and contact information of each professional advisor you have a working relationship with.

6. Information regarding your current and prior marriages.

It’s important to share with your estate planning attorney information regarding marital status. First, the estate planner needs to know whether you and your partner are legally married. Depending on the state you live in, a non-spouse is not automatically provided for in the statutes to inherit your estate upon your death. Some states, like Minnesota, require you to specifically provide for a non-spouse partner in your estate plan. The fact that you and your partner were never legally married, but have been together for decades are refer to each other as “spouse” does not necessarily mean they are entitled to the same rights as a legally married spouse. Furthermore, the estate planner needs to know whether your current marriage is subject to any prenuptial or antenuptual agreements, or any marital property agreements. Also, if you are previously divorced, your divorce decree may contain information relating to the disposition of certain assets to the previous spouse upon death. Furthermore, if you or your spouse have children from a previous relationship or marriage, this information is important to provide to your estate planning attorney because in many states, including Minnesota, step-children are not automatically provided for in your estate plan and need to be specifically mentioned.

7. List of any potential charities you would want to donate to.

If you or your spouse/partner wish to make any charitable contributions either as special gifts, or if no one is alive to inherit your estate at the time of your death, those should be spelled out clearly in your estate plan. As such, you should prepare a list of charitable organizations you wish to donate to upon your death, including name, address, phone number, and Tax ID Number, if easily accessible.

8. Whether you or your spouse are set to receive an inheritance.

No one dislikes receiving an inheritance.That being said, if not properly managed and planned for, it can lead to some surprising financial consequences. If you are expecting to receive an inheritance, you may need to manage your assets in such a way so that you can avoid tax consequences or even protect assets from creditors. No matter what the strategy is, if you know you are going to be receiving a sizeable inheritance, you should provide the estate planning attorney information about the type of asset you are going to inherit, the approximate value, and a date set to receive, if definite.

9. Whether you or your spouse are U.S. Citizens.

Can a spouse who is a non-U.S. citizen inherit your estate? Yes they can. So, then why is citizenship even an issue? Generally, it boils down to one word: taxes.

Under the U.S. federal tax regime, you can leave your spouse an unlimited amount of assets with no estate tax consequence when you die. This is called the unlimited marital deduction. However, this is only the case if your spouse is a U.S. citizen. The rationale behind this is that the federal government does not want a non-U.S. citizen inheriting a large amount of money, pay no estate tax, and then leave the country.

Furthermore, unlimited gifting that is available to spouses who are U.S. citizens is limited to non-U.S. citizen spouses. This even means that large purchases of joint property could trigger gift tax consequences if you or your spouse is a non-U.S. citizen. Sharing this information with your estate planning attorney can help them draft your estate plan to minimize these types of tax consequences.

10. List of Trustworthy individuals you would choose to act as your fiduciaries.

By definition, someone that acts as a “fiduciary” for someone else has a duty to act on such a way that will benefit them or their beneficiaries. These people are held to a higher standard, and owe the person and their beneficiaries a duty of care, loyalty, and good faith. When drafting your estate plan, you need to choose several fiduciaries, including a Personal Representative of your estate, a Trustee of your trust, a Guardian and/or Conservator of your minor children, an Attorney-in-Fact for your Power of Attorney document, and a Healthcare Agent for you Healthcare Directive. These individuals play important roles in your estate plan, and because of the higher standard of care owed, you should be prepared to provide your estate planning attorney a list of trustworthy individuals or professional entities that would be able to step into these roles upon your incapacity or death. This list should include their names, addresses, phone numbers, emails, relationships to you, and whether they are designated as first choices or successors to that role.

11. Be prepared to discuss life prolonging treatment and disposition after death.

No one ever likes to talk about death. Unfortunately, creating an estate plan forces you to do just that. Creating an effective estate plan does not only plan for what happens to your assets after death, but also plans for what happens when you are alive but unable to make decisions for yourself. This includes medical decisions. When you attend your initial estate planning meeting, be prepared to answer questions about: (i) what happens if you are in a terminal condition (i.e. coma); (ii) whether you would want life support removed; (iii) organ donation; (iv) cremation and burial; (v) funeral and memorial services; and (vi) other special health considerations or instructions for you designated healthcare agent.

12. Bring a list of questions you want answered. This could include anything from costs associated for preparing the plan, differences in the types of estate plans, what happens with your documents after they are executed, etc. Having well thought out questions ahead of time will save you and your estate planning attorney a lot of work later on.

Creating an estate plan is serious, and you have to be ready to make many critical decisions, including who should potentially serve as guardian of your children, who will be making medical and financial decisions should you become unable to, and how assets should be distributed after your death. Most estate planning attorneys offer initial consultations to discuss your estate with you. Preparing for your first estate planning consultation can actually take more time than you may have expected. The more prepared you are for this meeting, the clearer the attorney can be on your circumstances, be able to offer you an estimate on the cost of services, and begin laying the groundwork for your estate planning. While this list is not an exhaustive list, it is a great start for you and your attorney so that you can focus the meeting on strategic planning as opposed to information gathering.


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