I was talking to a colleague in Connecticut a few days ago when she went a bit off topic and relayed the story that follows. Like every lawyer I know, she gets questions from family members about every possible law-related topic before they consult a lawyer who actually practices in that area of law. That is, before consulting someone they will have to pay.
This is a universal truth, and it really does seem to apply to every attorney I know: if you’re a lawyer working primarily in business law, a family member is still going to ask you about that boat accident they had in international waters before they call an Admiralty lawyer, guaranteed.
This time, my friend got a late evening phone call from an extended family member whose husband had passed away about six months ago after a long illness. They did all their estate planning well before the death; executed health care proxies and powers of attorney that proved invaluable; organized the estate for maximum probate efficiency—and as a result, when the husband died, it sailed right through. Everything settled smoothly.
My colleague’s family member had called because, after the estate was settled, the firm that had done such great work called her and advised her to make an appointment to come in and review, edit, and/or execute updated planning for herself as soon as she could. When she asked for an estimate on how much it would cost, she got it, and then immediately called my friend to complain it was too high.
Now, my friend doesn’t do estate planning or probate work, nor does she practice in her relative’s state, so it’s not like she could dig into the details. But here’s how the conversation went:
Lawyer Friend: “Well… they did a great job for your husband, right?”
Relative: “Yeah, but - ”
Lawyer Friend: “And where would you be right now if they hadn’t?”
Relative: “Well, I’d - ”
Lawyer Friend: “You’d be waiting for things to clear so you could pay bills.”
Lawyer Friend: “So was it worth the fee they charged to set it all up.”
Relative: “Of course.”
Lawyer Friend: “Well, there’s you answer, unless you want your kids to experience what’s it like when it’s not done well.”
That was enough for the questioning relative. She booked her appointment the next day.
Great job by my non-estate-practicing lawyer friend.
We would have gone on to tell her relative that when a spouse dies and the estate is passed on, insurance policies are paid, 401(k) accounts transferred, property retitled, and everything else that happened to set her up for the rest of her life, there are ‘ghosts’ that remain.
Ghosts of previous documents that can have catastrophic effect down the road. It’s simple, really: most spouses make each other their heir, health care proxy, beneficiary, joint owner of the house, perhaps business, more.
After the death of one spouse, everything – everything – needs to be reviewed. There have been scores of cases where a surviving spouse ‘never got around to’ changing their 401(k) beneficiary to the kids; never named a new health care proxy and ended up with a court making the decisions; left the deceased spouse their life insurance beneficiary; and much more.
In our seminars and books, we talk about the pain that comes from doing things the wrong way and the relief that comes from planning done right. If you take the trouble to get it right the first time, please do your family a favor and keep doing it right when it comes time to update your plan. Good planning may not be cheap, but it can save your family a lot of money, time, and stress in the long run.