In the months leading up to law school graduation, and then to the bar exam, and then to opening my own practice, I must have had the same conversation a hundred times.
Acquaintance: "What are you up to?"
Me: "I'm about to graduate/take the bar/open my practice."
Acquaintance: "Oh that's great! I need a will."
In all honesty, I never intended to be an estate lawyer. Those who know my personal story, and those who have known me forever, would guess that I went to law school to be a criminal defender--and those people would be correct. In law school, I gravitated toward "skills" classes that taught me how to behave in the courtroom, how to practice in front of judges, and how to execute the strategies associated with litigation. I live to take up a sword and fight the battles that my clients cannot.
But I also gravitated to skills classes that taught me how to draft documents, how to solve complex issues, and how to have difficult conversations with clients and with other lawyers. In the end, when I considered the number one question that keeps young law students from entering into estate planning--"I mean, who wants to sit around talking about death all the time??"--it turned out the answer is . . . well . . . me. (You can add my friends Jarrod and Audra into this pot for good measure. They are funeral directors.)
In fact, I don't shy away from death at all. My whole life is death. By this, (what I hope is) the midpoint of my life, I have lost many of the most important figures in my life, including some heroes and my own child. I have watched people die in the moment, and I've watched as friends and family struggled with how to handle the deaths of those they loved. I can sit around talking/listening about death for hours on end, if anyone will oblige me. I suppose the irony here is that I am personally terrified of dying. It just seems so . . . final.
So getting back to that oft-repeated conversation: What I came to understand was that none of these people was actually offering to show up on my doorstep with a fee agreement and a list of things they wanted their will to say. On the contrary, each of these people was merely acknowledging a truth to someone they perceived as a safe space toward which to utter it: "I know I need a will, but I admit I do not have one because I am scared to talk about my death." And I understand that fear without any judgment, because I'm scared of it, too--that is, talking about my own death.
The thing is, death will find each of us, one way or another. One of these days, to quote one of my favorite rock anthems, your heart will stop and play its final beat. Your loved ones will struggle with how to handle your death. They will have to make difficult decisions. But the degree to which you've prepared for the inevitable may make those decisions more or less difficult.
Yes, my dear acquaintance, you do need a will. But an estate plan can be so much more than a laundry list of who-gets-what or accounting for who will look after your kids. In fact, the more you prepare to address these issues outside of a will, the better. This is essentially the work of an estate lawyer: taking a complex life and a set of hopes and dreams, and distilling it into a plan for the future that reflects the values and goals of the person at the center of that life. You see, it's not all about death. It's about carrying on: carrying on into old age (God willing), carrying on when your body can no longer carry you, and carrying on your legacy when the final bell rings.
So what is an estate plan, anyway?
A last will and testament is a good thing to have, for sure. In fact, you can buy and print one off from the internet right now for less than fifty bucks. But there are so many tools an estate planner can use to help you reach your goals. Those goals, if you stop and think about them, might include:
Providing for the care of a parent, child, or other relative who may be elderly or disabled, either during your life or after your death
Getting your property and assets distributed to your loved ones quickly after your passing - and keeping the costs of that transfer to a minimum
Making your funeral arrangements or designating what you want done with your remains
Coordinating your estate plan with your retirement plan and long term healthcare needs to ensure your final years are comfortable
Preparing for possible incapacity or disability, and choosing someone to make health decisions for you so a court doesn't have to
Spelling out a succession plan for your business and ensuring it continues on when you are no longer able to work
With all the work you've put into creating this life you are living, why would you trust a do-it-yourself form from the internet to send you off into the Great Beyond? You likely have an accountant, a minister, a banker or financial adviser, an insurance agent, and a favorite niece or nephew. Why not use a lawyer who can help you facilitate all these amazing resources to create a plan that means something for your life?
So, welcome to my office. Let's sit down, have some tea, and talk about your demise. But more importantly, let's talk about your life and what you want it to mean; there is nothing scary about that.