I watch a lot of British murder mysteries on television, and if I’ve learned anything it’s this: There’s a lot of murder in England, and it’s often to do with wills. I know these slips of paper, so meticulously hidden in secret safes, wall paneling, and coat pockets are important. But until recently, I didn’t see any connection between myself and these lords and ladies who fight tooth and nail for their inheritance. I thought wills were for rich people with vindictive adult children who drink tea and have gambling problems.
Murder on television is exciting, but wills are paperwork, and paperwork is boring in real life. Besides, I have zero royal blood. Until recently, I didn’t have any assets either. But it turns out, I’m learning that—just like insurance, credit cards, and resumés—estate planning is an important part of being an adult that we all should have learned about but most of us didn’t. Without shaming myself for missing yet another memo, I set out to learn more about wills with the help of San Francisco lawyer Autumn Engel Benavidez. She was extremely patient, answered all my questions, and did not laugh at me a single time. This is what I learned.
Estate Plan is the new will
There are actually three facets of preparing for the event of your incapacitation or death. The entire package is called an Estate Plan, and Autumn suggests coming at the project from this more thorough angle. A Will details your wishes regarding the distribution of property, and the care of any minor children. Power of Attorney is a document that gives another person the authority to act on your behalf for financial matters. And the Advance Care Directive is a legal document giving another person the authority to carry out medical decisions on your behalf.
Why it matters: If an Estate Plan is not set in place for you or your partner, the state will make these decisions for you. Like most government bureaucracy, this is an experience best avoided for the sake of all involved. I admit, it was the custody of my children that drove this idea home for me. I do not want strangers deciding their future, or for the burden of a family battle to be a part of this kind of crisis.
Also note that an Estate Plan is even more important if you are in a partnership that is not a legal marriage, and the rules about relationships change from state to state. Some states are respectful of same-sex marriage; some states are not. Some states recognize domestic partnership, some to do not! If you or your partner are incapacitated in an accident, hospitals have the right to prevent you from visiting or making important decisions. This is my worst nightmare.
But I’m Healthy and this is Depressing
Autumn admitted that this is something she discusses with people often; it feels gruesome to prepare for death, and it seems like something for sick or older people anyway. However, part of adulting is being prepared and acknowledging that the unfathomable does sometimes happen to people. Even you and me. As Autumn said, “Having an estate plan is straightforward and can save your loved ones from a potentially sticky situation.” In other words, it’s not about you! Think of your estate plan as something you’re doing for the ones you love. Autumn also noted that time and time again, once all the documents are signed her clients sigh with relief, saying, “I feel so much better.”
I’ll deal with this later
There is a lot of information here and, like so many aspects of adulting, it can feel overwhelming quickly. How can you make rational decisions while measuring the possibility of something so scary? If you’re like me, the word “lawyer,” sounds expensive. Autumn assured me this is a project easily broken down into small steps: “Start with one document. What is your greatest concern? Just take one step forward.”
While an attorney might help avoid overwhelm with this step-by-step process, Autumn pointed out that it isn’t necessary to have a lawyer. It’s possible to make an estate plan by yourself; it can even be handwritten! (Cue every Agatha Christie mystery with crumpled papers in clenched fists!) It’s not a direction that Autumn suggests if your estate includes real estate and/or children who are minors, though. While it sounds the fanciest, the Advance Care Directive is the simplest part, according to Autumn; she says a general practitioner should have the simple form you need. You can also check out websites like GYST (aka Get Your Sh*t Together) which has organized a lot of the paperwork and process into one location.
For other online resources, I spoke with a friend who used LegalZoom and said, “It was very reasonable and user-friendly. We made a date night out of it because it’s not sexy to do.” Another commonly used online legal prep site is Nolo, and they have lots of information on making a will in your state. I also found Suze Orman loves estate planning and has lots of resources on her website, including a mail-order kit. If you are in California, the California Bar Association website also has information and forms for estate planning. But keep in mind, as Autumn noted, that “because laws vary state to state, it is imperative that you are getting your state-specific forms.”
Similarly, if you are in California and decide to use a lawyer for your estate plan project, Autumn can help you! If not Autumn, or if you aren’t in California, then starting with referrals from family and friends is often the best way to find a lawyer. Next best is your local state’s bar association. Again, it can not be emphasized enough how important it is to use state-specific forms.
My Approach to Estate Planning
I have children who are minors, and writing this article jumpstarted the estate planning process for me and my husband. We’ve decided to talk about the ideas we have, write up our main ideas, and then contact a lawyer. I am someone who likes taking things step by step, and I appreciate having accountability partners. For this task, I am contacting some married friends of ours to see who has gone through this, who hasn’t, and how we can work together to support each other’s adulting process. I will take any excuse for a dinner party, and an Estate Planning Potluck sounds really good to me right now. After food and planning, we’ll see what’s playing on the BBC, and see who can guess which adult child with a gambling problem did it this time.
The information provided in this article is intended to serve as general advice and guidance for all readers. The advice herein does not constitute a legal recommendation or relationship, and Eve Sturges and Autumn Engel Benavidez do not take legal responsibility for this information. This article does not take the place of a confidential legal consultation with a lawyer.