It's one of the most common questions I get, especially from people who have tried to do it themselves or worked with attorneys in the past who never explained to them what those terms in their estate plan actually mean.

I'll admit that I've looked through those online will preparation sites (call it competitive research). But what you'll find is it's just a mail merge template of your information. What happens is they ask you the questions that they want you to answer. But you don't get to ask the questions you want to ask, the things that are on your mind, the ideas you have for your estate plan. And after you've answered their questions and hopefully aren't left with too many of your own, you get a document from them, and probably one page at the end that tells you how to have it signed.

But what do you do if you want to make changes? Do you even know where you're allowed to make changes?

It's YOUR Estate Plan

The most important thing you need to know is that your estate plan needs to be personal to you. It's your life, it's your assets, it's your family, it's what you want to have happen, not some template from a website that's charging you $49.99 and then telling you to go off and figure out how to sign it. You need to make sure you are selecting the right documents for you and your legacy.

For those of you who aren't familiar with what's in an estate plan, there's a variety of documents that should be in an estate plan: 

  • A Will
  • A Healthcare Power of Attorney
  • General Power of Attorney
  • Living Will
  • HIPAA Authorization

No matter what documents you're going to use, you need to choose those documents that are right for you and your family, and you need to understand why you're choosing them.

Healthcare Power of Attorney vs. Living Will

For example, many of my clients will do a healthcare power of attorney, but opt not to do a living will, as well. A living will says what you would like to have happen if you become sick. It is your intentions if you become sick, what you'd like to do regarding end of life procedures. But if you're using a healthcare power of attorney, that document has appointed somebody to make those major decisions for you, and often includes some of that same language. So many of my clients will choose to just go with a healthcare power of attorney because they trust the agent who they are choosing to make those medical decisions for them.

And when you think about a health care power of attorney, think how important those decisions are. There can be things like psychiatric treatment, organ donation, whether there's going to be an autopsy, access to medical records, what kinds of treatment you want to have and what you don't want to have. These are very important health decisions that you want to make sure are being made, first of all by the right person. But also, you want to choose whether to include them. Many of my clients, for example, will remove the provision for psychiatric care from their healthcare power of attorney. It's a serious provision that gives somebody a very significant legal power over healthcare decisions for you. So that is something that many of my clients will choose to omit.

If you go to a website and you're trying to mail merge your information to another form does it tell you that you have the ability to take that provision out? Was it just automatically left in there for you and you sign it, not knowing what your options are?

Personalizing Your Will

Now the primary document in your estate plan is going to be your last will and testament, known as your will. If you want to know why it's so important to personalize it, we'll just think about the things that are in there: 

  • If you have children, you're going to choose the guardians for your children:
  • You're going to choose trustees who will manage money for your children;
  • You'll choose a personal representative (the person who's going to take that will, and divide up your property, the way that you would like); 
  • If you're in a state that allows for it, you can opt for informal probate (meaning that you don't have to go through a formal probate process of having a judge approve what your personal representative is doing); 
  • You can also use a personal property memorandum in many states, which is simply a list of your property that you want to go to certain people. So for example, your grandmother's china, you may want to have it go to your brother or sister, as opposed to your in-laws in case you die. A personal property memorandum goes with your will, it's a simple document that just has to be signed and dated. It doesn't have to be notarized and witnessed as a will does.

All of these things working together show you the importance of personalizing your estate plan. It's your plan, it's not anybody else's. When you go to some form template from a website, it's suggesting to you how your estate plan should be working without giving you all of the options. It's actually one of the most common things that people ask me when we're putting together a will. They always want to know: 

How do other people do it?

And my answer is always the same. I can tell you how other people do it, but I don't want that to sway your decision. In the end, it's your decision, they're your children, your assets, your family, you choose first what you want to do, and then we will make the documents happen so that you can feel protected.

What Should You Do?

So looking at all this, there are really two ways you can get this done. You can try to go to those websites, you're going to put in your basic information, answer a few questions, and they'll give you that template, and essentially they're crafting your future legacy for you. They're saying, here's the way we believe it should be going. So you fill in the information and will spit out the document. The second way is the way that you're likely going to do it, which is you're going to work with a professional, somebody who can answer your questions. Somebody who can go through all of the terms and the will, somebody who can give you options that you can plan for. When you work with my office, I don't let you sign your documents, unless you understand them.

I've had clients show up in the morning for a signing ceremony with lists of questions, and we send the witnesses away. And we sit down and we go through all the questions. When everything is done, when they understand all the questions, and they've had all their questions answered, then we can set up a signing ceremony to have the will, on their other documents signed.

Don't leave your loved ones with a confusing form, that doesn't make sense to anyone. The result is going to be thousands of dollars of legal fees for attorneys as your family and the court tries to sort out what you really meant by that confusing document.

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Next Steps

If you're ready to put together a personalized estate plan that is customized for you and your family, let's set up a free Legal Strategy Session to answer any questions you may have and get the next steps in place for you.

Andrew Ayers
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I work with business and estate planning clients to craft legal solutions to protect their legacies.
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