3 steps for estate plans that work

Estate Plan Edge: Develop a plan, commit to carrying it out, and secure help in the transfer.

Have you done your estate plan? (Careful, it’s a trick question!)

What does that mean to you, having your estate plan done? Many people think of it as going to a lawyer and having them draw up a will or a trust that says where their assets will go when they die. If they have done that, the thinking goes, they have “done their estate plan.” Unfortunately, an estate plan done that way doesn’t really work.

For an estate plan to work, a family needs to engage in what I call a three-step strategy:

1. Develop your plan with counseling-oriented professionals. At this point, you are off to a good start. It is not done! Now move to the next step.

2. Commit yourself and your family to a continuing maintenance and education program.

3. Secure appropriate assistance for you and your family to transfer your wisdom along with the rest of your wealth.

Step 1: Develop. To develop is to create, with no limiting assumptions, no pre-set boundaries to your thinking, no one suggesting to you what is typical, normal or standard. Developing means thinking outside of any box, being creative, considering the unique issues of your situation, and looking for the most effective means of achieving the best possible results. Counseling-oriented professionals will ensure that you know what is possible before they let you limit yourself to what is already within your knowledge.

Compare it to raising corn and your desire for the highest possible yield. Say you have experience with only three varieties of seed corn. You consult a seed representative and ask which of those three he recommends. Should he just take your order, make the sale and move on? The salesman knows about 100 other varieties of seed corn and the specific strengths and weaknesses of each. Wouldn’t you want him to ask about your situation — soil type, growing season, weather, crop rotation, tillage practices and more — before taking your order? If varieties other than the three you know about would be better-suited for your situation, wouldn’t you appreciate it if he told you about them?

A counseling-oriented estate planning attorney is the one who will not merely take your order for this document or that, but who will spend the time exploring your situation — will get to know your family and farm and your major goals and concerns — before recommending any documents. Then he or she will explain the pros and cons of various “seed varieties” that might be more suitable to bring about the results you seek.

Step 2: Commit. Unless you and your attorney have a perfectly functioning crystal ball, there are three types of changes that must be addressed over time. First, your personal situation will change, such as your assets, your operation, your family involvement, your health and, in some instances, your goals. Second, laws will change, including estate, income and capital gain tax laws, trust laws, business laws, liability laws, divorce laws, nursing home laws, and more. Third, experiences provide us all with more wisdom: You gain wisdom, and so do the professionals you work with. These changes occur, and your legal documents must keep up. New assets must be titled correctly. New tactics must be used to combat new taxes and new problems. New insights must be applied to old challenges.

As for education, estate planning is like anything else that is important to you in a world of change. Commit yourself to staying informed of new ideas and opportunities, and don’t forget how to use what you have. Make sure your family is with you and prepared for transitions that will be coming — especially two of the most difficult of life’s circumstances: disability and death.

Step 3: Secure. Transitions that occur as a result of disability and death are major tests of an estate plan. The mutual commitments of family and advisers will secure the appropriate assistance needed to comfortably carry out your plan. The proactive preparation should now result in a relatively stress-free, organized, intentional transfer of control, assets, and, in a sense, wisdom, to those intended to benefit. Professionals will facilitate the process, but not control your family.

When your estate has been transferred to your heirs, will your estate planning be done? I don’t know. Was that the final result you had in mind? Or were you hoping the farm would succeed for another generation … or maybe your vision reaches even further? If so, perhaps your estate planning will continue to be a work in progress, carried on by those to whom you entrust your vision.

Ferguson is an attorney who owns The Estate Planning Center in Salem, Ill. Learn more at

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