You need a will, but you probably don’t have one. Most Americans—58%—don’t. When you look just at Generation X, it’s 64%. When you look at Millennials, it’s 78%. You know you should have a will, you just haven’t gotten around to it.
But it’s there, in the back of your mind: that seed of worry. What if …? What will happen to your spouse? What will happen to your kids? Will your family have what they need? Will it all be a legal and emotional mess?
You want to provide for your family. You want to protect your family from the worst things that happen in life. You worry about those things and you see them happen to others. That’s why you work hard. That’s why you do things like get life insurance and save money and create a budget. And that’s why you should have a will along with a complete legal plan for your property and your health care.
The problem is getting a will—and the other documents that form a complete estate plan—is not the easiest thing.
You could hire a lawyer, sure. First you’ll have to find a good estate planning lawyer in your area. You’ll have to call several law firms and set up consultations in their offices to find one you trust and to find out what they all charge (it’s not on their websites). It won’t be cheap. Then you’ll have to work with that lawyer over one or two months, probably having two or three meetings in the lawyer’s office during business hours. It’s not easy to find the right lawyer and the time and the money. Some people have the resources for it. Most people don’t. That’s why they don’t get around to it.
The other thing you could do is do it yourself. DIY estate planning has been around for decades, and now there are online services like LegalZoom. Cutting out the lawyer certainly makes it cheaper. It also cuts out the assurance that the estate plan you get is the estate plan you need. Can you trust it? Will it really work when it’s needed? Will a plan like that be what you need and address all of your specific legal issues? Do you trust yourself to customize legal documents without error? In the end, the cheap DIY option has been around for decades, and yet most people still don’t have wills.
What you need, in reality, is a lawyer. But you need one that isn’t so expensive and inconvenient.
Without a will, your family is at risk
Until you find that affordable-and-convenient estate planning lawyer, you’re stuck with most other adults in America just not getting around to it. The consequences can be severe.
If you have young children but you don’t have a will, they are at risk—even if you don’t have any assets. The most important thing a will does is not distribute property; it’s naming who will have custody of your children if the worst happens to their parents. If you haven’t made your wishes known and legally effective, who knows what will happen? You can probably think of a few people you definitely do not want taking care of your children, or who at least would not be the best for it. Another thing that happens too often is that well-meaning family members on either side fight. They fight not because they are mean-spirited or spiteful, but because they truly believe something about what you would have wanted or what is best for your children that conflicts with what other family members truly believe. These are terrible situations for everyone involved. It’s not only your children’s care and future at risk, but the relationships in your entire family.
Every parent with young children also needs to think about their children receiving an inheritance at age 18. If you die while your child is a minor, a guardian or conservator will be appointed to manage the property you leave to them. But as soon as they turn 18, they gain full control. I don’t know many people who think an 18-year-old is likely to manage even a few thousand dollars well. If you think your child won’t get anything because you don’t have anything, think again. You probably have life insurance on the order of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, through work if not on your own. Your debt might be forgiven and not reduce your child’s inheritance—a big example is federal student loans. And even if you don’t have much now, you might have more in the future. That is, after all, what you hope and work for.
There are many other consequences to not having an estate plan, as varied as people are:
- Your spouse can’t manage your employer-provided benefits. That might be important if, for example, you fall ill, lose your job, and need to elect COBRA coverage.
- Your spouse and family can’t make health care decisions for you. Sure, most of the time the doctor or hospital will respect the wishes of family. But without the legal authority, it’s in the doctor’s hands. And what if your family disagrees about the best course of action?
- Your spouse can’t manage your singly-owned retirement accounts, investments, bank accounts, or real estate. Your spouse can’t sign for you when required to sell your home, change a beneficiary, or deal with your student loan.
- Your spouse or family might face a big mess trying to suddenly figure out how all the bills are paid and where all your accounts are and where the important information is.
- If you have a family member who is disabled, they might receive money from you in a way that disqualifies them from government benefits. That creates a big mess.
- Your family might lose access to your digital accounts, including things like Facebook and your digital photos.
And, of course, there are plenty more potential legal issues not worth detailing here. These aren’t all issues for everybody, and that’s the point. The biggest reason you need a lawyer, whether you know it or not, is not to draft the documents properly—it’s to identify all the particular issues you need to watch out for in your particular situation. That is the primary thing law school does: it trains lawyers to spot as many legal issues as possible.
I found another way to do estate planning
So the problem is that you know you need a will, and you don’t trust yourself to spot all the legal issues or draft the documents properly, but hiring a lawyer is expensive, inconvenient, and time-consuming. It’s a perfect storm that explains why so many people “just haven’t gotten around to it.”
When I started my own law practice, I was determined to be different. I didn’t want to do estate planning the same way it had always been done. I thought there must be a better way. A more affordable and simpler way. I started by keeping my estate planning documents themselves short and simple; not basic, like a boilerplate form, but not stuffed full of unneeded legalese and pompous wording. I kept my overhead low; I didn’t lease a fancy office or hire an employee. I charged only flat fees, never hourly, and kept them as low as I could. But in the end, I found myself following the same basic process of one-on-one meetings with clients over several weeks. My fees were very reasonable, but still out of reach for the kind of clients I’d like to serve most. I found there was a floor to how low my fees could go.
But then I found a different way to do simple estate planning. A way that allowed a large group of people to get good but simple estate plans with advice from attorneys. A way that made the estate planning fast. A way that made it affordable. A way that has already been done in Wisconsin for years.
This way of estate planning is how Wills for Heroes works. Wills for Heroes is a charitable program (it relies on donations and volunteers) that gives simple estate planning to first responders for free. Here’s how it works:
- Organizers schedule a one-day program at a local fire department or police station.
- Before the program, participants work through a detailed estate planning questionnaire. This gives them important information about estate planning and allows them to think through important decisions and discuss them with their families.
- At the event, each participant is assigned a volunteer attorney. The attorney enters the questionnaire answers into a program that generates the documents quickly.
- The attorney then reviews the draft documents with the participant to answer questions and ensure the participant knows and agrees to what they are signing.
- Once the documents are finalized, they are signed, witnessed, and notarized in a signing ceremony.
I volunteered at a Wills for Heroes program about two years ago. It worked. It gave a good, simple estate plan to a lot of people efficiently and affordably. There’s no reason why the same way of estate planning couldn’t work in other contexts.
The reason Wills for Heroes works is it minimizes the time the lawyers have to spend on each participant. The lawyers are only used for what they are truly needed for: spotting potential issues in the questionnaires, advising the participants to ensure they know what they’re signing, and drafting/finalizing the legal documents. Most of the hard work of learning about estate planning and making tough decisions happens without the lawyers, on the participants’ own time before the program. Wills for Heroes is 80% DIY and 20% lawyer estate planning.
There’s no reason why the same idea couldn’t work for everyone. That’s why I’m developing an estate planning program that does exactly that. It’s not charitable, but it is affordable and available to everyone. I think doing estate planning this way is a win-win for me and my clients.
Looking for beta testers
I’ll be frank: this program is just starting. This idea is still being tested. There will be hiccups. It won’t be perfectly smooth from the start. I can’t provide you with glowing testimonials.
I think, though, that there are good reasons to think this will be worth your while, if you’re okay with a few bumps in the road. If you want to know more about me, you can take a look at my website and Google reviews from my past clients for more traditional estate planning. You can also look at the testimonials from the Wills for Heroes program to see how people who’ve been through a similar program feel about it.
What I’m looking for are beta testers. People who think this idea holds promise, are excited to access it first, and want to provide feedback to make it better for others in the future. All while achieving the peace of mind and security that comes from finally getting around to getting your will done.
The Forward Estate Planning program
When you sign up for Forward Estate Planning, you’ll be signing up for a one-month program of learning, decision-making, planning, and preparing legal documents. By the end of four weeks, you’ll have learned why you need an estate plan, know exactly what you need in your estate plan, have your legal documents drafted and reviewed by a lawyer, have your questions answered by a lawyer, and have your plan executed and in place.
Each week will focus on a different estate planning topic and document:
- Week 1: health care powers of attorney and living wills. During this week, you will learn how the law affects your health care and what your rights are as a patient. You will also prepare a power of attorney for health care to name another person to make health care decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself. By the end, you’ll know that your family both knows your wishes for health care and has the legal power to manage it for you according to your wishes.
- Week 2: financial powers of attorney. During this week, you will learn how the law affects your finances and property rights. You will also prepare a power of attorney for finances and property to name another person to manage your property and legal rights on your behalf. By the end, you’ll be assured that your spouse and other important family members can, if needed or wanted, pay the bills and manage important assets such as employer-provided benefits, government benefits, retirement accounts, and life insurance.
- Week 3: wills and beneficiary designations. During this week, you will learn how the law affects who gets your property after your death and what you can do about it. You will learn about the probate process, what property must go through it, and how to avoid it if desired. You will also learn about beneficiary designations, transfer-on-death designations, and pay-on-death designations—ways your property gets transferred to others while bypassing your will and the probate process. And you’ll learn how to nominate a guardian to care for your children if both parents can’t. You’ll prepare a last will and testament and add or change beneficiary designations to get your property to the people you want to have it. By the end, you’ll know that your family will be provided for in the event of your death and won’t have a legal mess to deal at the worst time.
- Week 4: executing your documents and implementing your plan. During this week, you will learn how to properly execute each of your documents and do it. You’ll then learn what to do to implement your plan and ensure it is effective. This will also be the week when I meet with you personally to review your documents, discuss any issues, customize your documents, and ensure your particular legal issues are being addressed. At the end, you’ll celebrate completing your estate planning and enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve provided for and protected your family from some of the worst things that can happen in the worst crises we all face.
The learning component of each week will happen through webinars, emails, and online guides. Each week will kick off with a webinar for all participants where I explain that week’s topic and teach the basics. This webinar will also include a guest expert related to the subject to add a useful perspective—for the first week, for example, I might bring on a doctor to talk about end-of-life decisions. Then, throughout the week, you will receive short daily emails to help you start thinking about the decisions you’ll need to make and prompt you to begin work on your legal document.
The document for each week will be prepared through an online portal containing apps (like a mini TurboTax). These apps will allow you to work in bite-sized chunks, provide the essential information you need, and collect data and decisions from you. Once you work through all the required apps for the week, you’ll have a draft legal document generated and sent to me for legal review. You’ll also be able to ask me questions or request personalized guidance at any time. Towards the end of the week, I’ll host an online Q&A session to address the most common questions and anything else that might be helpful to the entire group.
Throughout your month of Forward Estate Planning, your information will always be kept confidential. Although you’ll be part of a group going through the same process together, other participants will not be able to see any of your information. My policy will be to keep every participant anonymous. If I think one person’s question or situation might be helpful to discuss with the rest of the group, I will ask for permission to share.
What you’re getting with Forward Estate Planning is not just a bundle of legal documents. It’s knowledge of the law and how it affects you and your family. It’s the experience that comes from working through things yourself. It’s the assurance the comes from having a lawyer guiding and reviewing your plan. Most importantly, it’s the peace of mind that comes from finally “getting around to it.” All because you can finally get it—a will and a complete estate plan—without the price and inconvenience of hiring a traditional lawyer and without the risks of doing it all yourself.
Now’s the time to take action. The very first Forward Estate Planning group starts June 1. It’s limited to 10 participants and signups will be closed May 31.
The full price of Forward Estate Planning will be $225 per person ($450 per couple), but I am offering it to the first group for only $100 per person ($200 per couple).
You can also get it for a flat $99 (even for a couple) through ARAG, a legal insurance company. You’ll have to sign up here, pay ARAG, and then either find me through the ARAG client portal or call ARAG customer service and request me (ARAG might only show you attorneys in your geographic area).
Click here to get started. You’ll need to enter your name, contact info, and the names of your family members. I need the names of your family so I can check for conflicts of interest (these are rare), something I must do as an attorney. You’ll also pay online (this payment is completely refundable any time before the program starts if you need to cancel).
Thank you for your interest. I’m excited to offer something truly unique with Forward Estate Planning. I hope it makes good, simple estate planning more accessible and affordable for everyone.
Interested? Sign up!
If the thought of moving estate planning forward has you intrigued, sign up for my newsletter below. It’s called The Forward Draft, and it’s all about my work as I try to move estate planning forward. You can expect a newsletter every other week. Each newsletter will include summaries and links to two blog posts about estate planning, plus some off-the-cuff remarks from me as I work on this program.