A lawyer does more than make sure the estate planning documents are properly drafted. An experienced lawyer helps you think about things you might not have considered, including best candidates for guardian, fiduciaries like trustees, executors, and agents under power of attorney, what happens in the event of remarriage, and what to do about pets and problematic in-laws.
Even simple estate plans need to be carefully thought out. By way of example, imagine a woman with two sons who owns a piece of property worth $400,000 and a savings account with the same amount. Wanting to divide her property equally between her boys, she hand writes her will, leaving the real property to one son and the savings account to the other. She puts the will in her fireproof safe and doesn’t give it another thought. On her death many years later, the real property has appreciated in value to $500,000 while she depleted the savings account, little by little, to $100,000. One son will be very happy and the other son will be looking for a lawyer.
Words matter, especially when the author will not be available to explain, and an experienced estate planning attorney knows which words matter most. In California, valid estate planning documents require “dispositive” language that clearly show the testator’s intent. Words such as “I give” or “the Trustee shall distribute” are examples of such language. Language that expresses general preferences, wishes or hopes will not be good enough.
If your estate plan is ever challenged, the court will be looking for someone to explain your intentions. The court will not be able to rely on testimony from self-interested family members. Testimony from the person who does not benefit from the estate and who had conversations with you while you were alive will be of most value. That person will most likely be the estate lawyer who drafted the document.