Planning for death is still proving to be a challenge for many adults across the nation and here in Spokane, say elder law and estate planning attorney Lynn St. Louis and financial planner Paul Viren. St. Louis and Viren both say they see many adults procrastinate preparing a will, for a few different reasons.
St. Louis says that today's youth-oriented culture is partly responsible for people not wanting to get a will.
"People just don't want to address death or disability unless they're facing it," she says.
St. Louis, who has been an elder law attorney since the early 2000s, says she often sees people getting a will once they've retired or faced a serious illness or accident.
"It's just like everything else; people don't want to consider that they aren't youthful and capable until evidence is presented otherwise," she says.
St. Louis also believes that today's culture focuses on staying independent, not on planning for the future.
"I think that with the baby boomers aging, the focus is on trying to stay healthy and independent," she says. "But they're also more likely to need care."
Nationwide, many adults also aren't having wills drawn up, says a survey conducted earlier this year by the legal website FindLaw.com. According to the study of adults ages 18 to 65-plus, only one-third of those surveyed had a will, and fewer than half of respondents who were under the age of 54 had one.
Another issue facing some elders, St. Louis says, is what assets can be put in a will, and what assets don't go into probate, referring to court proceedings that deal with the validity of wills and the administration of deceased persons' estates. For example, she says, 401(k) plans don't go through probate after a person dies. If a worker names a spouse as the beneficiary on his or her plan, and then gets a divorce but doesn't change the beneficiary on the plan itself, the former spouse will still get the money no matter what the will states, she says.
"People don't ever think about these things," St. Louis says. "Many people do wills just as an aside. They never talk about nonprobate assets."
Viren, who is the managing partner at Viren & Associates Inc., says that people need to have a will to give their family and loved ones direction about what to do with minor children or possessions at the end of their lives. He says that the most common reason he sees people not having wills is procrastination.
"People mean to get around to it, but unless you're seeing that semitruck coming down the wrong lane, you're not thinking about it," he says. "Sometimes it's also a lack of decision-making ability."
A practice that Viren says he has incorporated to ease clients into wills is to get them started by writing letters for their loved ones to read after they're gone.
"It's gained a lot of traction, that soft approach to estate planning in general," he says. "The letters don't replace the will, but it goes along with those important documents. It gets them started."
When making an estate plan, Viren says, people should include five things: a will, a health care power of attorney, a financial power of attorney, a living will, and letters to loved ones.
Things that should be included in the will itself, Viren says, are guardianship of minor children, investment accounts, property, vehicles, and any other assets.
Oftentimes, St. Louis says, people might not realize what their assets are. Many make the mistake of thinking that only the wealthy have estates.
"People often say, 'I don't have an estate,'" she says. "Well, it might be modest, but everyone has one."
Viren says, "A lot of people are under the misconception that they don't have anything, and they figure the courts can sort it out."
Wealthier clients, St. Louis says, used to be more concerned with avoiding estate taxes; however, that has changed in recent years.
"It's not the big planning issue that it used to be in the past, unless you're really wealthy," she says. This is because both state and federal laws allow several million dollars to be bequeathed before taxes become applicable.
"That's not the majority of people," she says.
Viren says that he usually recommends clients see a lawyer when making a will, which he says can cost anywhere from $400 to several thousand dollars, but many clients find it too costly. If they do, he says, he sometimes refers people to legal websites such as LegalZoom.com.
"My goal is to get a client a will," he says.
However, a large part of being an estate planning attorney, St. Louis says, is connecting with other resources to help clients ensure thats all their wishes pertaining to their estate will be carried out. This includes working with staff members at care facilities, nurses, financial planners, and insurance agents, something that clients won't get if they try to make a will themselves.
"The attorney, the documents, is only one piece," she says. "You have to look at the person as whole, and that's what you don't get on LegalZoom."
St. Louis also says that Gonzaga Law School has an elder law clinic for those who may not be able to afford an attorney to help them with a will.
Both St. Louis and Viren have the same advice about when to create a will: when one has had a child, gets married, or goes through a significant life event.
If someone doesn't have a will, Viren says, the state takes over and the courts appoint an administrator. The courts then sort out who is the next of kin, or the beneficiary. However, this process can be costly for the remaining family members.
St. Louis says she recommends looking at and possibly renewing a will every five years or when a significant event happens, such as a death in the family or an inheritance. She also recommends re-examining your will and the laws pertaining to inheritance after moving to another state.
"If you move to another state, the will is still good, but there can be little differences in the laws," she says.
The goal of estate planning, St. Louis says, is to help clients plan for the future, whatever it may be.
"My concern is that my clients don't suffer because we failed to plan," she says, especially in cases where one spouse needs care and dies before the other.
"We need to make sure the surviving spouse is not impoverished," she says.
In order for a will to be legal, St. Louis says, it has to be witnessed and signed by two competent people. Wills don't necessarily have to be notarized, she says. However, in the state of Washington, if a will is notarized, it becomes a self-proving document, and then the two signing witnesses don't have to testify upon the will owner's death.
Viren also serves as the secretary to the National Association for Estate Planners and Councils. The association, he says, is made up of 250 councils with 30,000 members across the country. It includes about 150 members here in Spokane, including professionals such as attorneys, certified public accountants, and insurance adjustors, he says. Its objective, he says, is to help people plan their estates and to serve as a resource.
The association also runs estateplanninganswers.org, Viren says, where those looking for estate planning options can find them broken into categories by life stages and specific issues.
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