Many people think the term “estate planning” refers solely to the distribution of assets after death. While that is part of it, estate planning can also address many lifetime and end-of-life issues. For example, a well-designed and implemented estate plan will ensure that a person of your choosing has the authority to make medical and financial decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated. Without your own plan, someone will petition the court to gain control over your assets and medical care. This could well be a person you would never have wanted to make important decisions like these for you. And the court processes involved, which frequently involve establishing both guardianship and conservatorship, can be lengthy, frustrating and needlessly expensive.

This is but one example of what estate planning can help you accomplish. Depending on your unique needs and goals, we can design a plan capable of helping you accomplish a great deal more, such as:

  • Ensure that your minor children will be raised according to your wishes if something happens to you and your spouse
  • Ensure that you have complete control over your assets while you are alive and well
  • Leave what you want to whom you want in the manner you want after you pass away
  • Protect your assets from creditors, lawsuits, and other threats
  • Pass your work ethic, values and sense of responsibility to heirs
  • Significantly reduce estate, income, gift and other taxes
  • Ensure that your financial affairs and information about your family remain private
  • Protect your heirs’ inheritances
  • Leave a lasting legacy and impact on society

Accomplishing goals like these is impossible without close collaboration between you and a qualified estate planning attorney. Unlike many law firms that simply engage in form drafting, where all clients receive essentially the same form-based estate plan, we create one-of-a-kind plans. We will listen closely to your goals and concerns, work to understand your family dynamics and then draft a customized, comprehensive estate plan to achieve all of the goals identified. In addition, we can collaborate with your financial planner, tax accountant, and insurance representative to ensure that all bases are covered. In the end, you will enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing your family and assets are protected.

Our representation does not end when your estate plan is created. We offer free annual estate plan review sessions to ensure that your plan keeps up with changes in your life. It is part of our commitment to serving as your “counselors for life.”

Contact us today for a free consultation to discuss your particular needs and goals.

Our Unique Approach

Here is our unique approach to estate planning—our “philosophy,” if you will.

  1. We view estate planning as a process, not a transaction. An estate plan is not something that you create and then place in a lock-box, never to see the light of day for another 5, 10 or 15 years. Plans should be reviewed regularly, which is why we offer free annual review meetings to each of our estate planning clients. During this meeting, we review with the client any changes that have occurred, including changes in health, finances, family dynamics and structures and the lives of children and other loved ones. We also review changes in the law, as well as the client’s choices for agents, trustees, executors, durable financial powers of attorney, and other important representatives. Finally, we update the client’s “Asset Review Report,” which lists a client’s property, how it is titled and, if there are beneficiaries, who the beneficiaries are. We do all of this at no charge.
  2. Our philosophy is to keep it simple. We explain everything we do in plain English rather than “Legalese.” That said, we also want to be comprehensive. While we cannot predict the future, we strive to anticipate a wide range of potential problems. We call this “putting sweaters in the suitcase.” Simple does not have to mean incomplete.
  3. The only thing we know for certain is that ultimately everyone will pass away. Beyond that, nothing is certain. Is it possible that they we will lose competency at some point in the future? We hope not, but it is certainly possible. And because it is possible, we better have a plan in place to deal with this possibility. This goes back to point Number two and the importance of being comprehensive.
  4. We don’t “punt.” We know we are going to die at some point, but if we don’t make decisions regarding, for example, what happens to our estate or whether we want to be buried or cremated, we have punted and put the responsibility on our children to figure it out. Similarly, we know it is possible that we will be diagnosed with a terminal illness or condition that renders us incapable of expressing our wishes about what types of life-sustaining medical procedures we do or do not want. If we don’t plan for this possibility, we have punted and left it to our spouse or kids to decide. Having to make decisions like these puts unnecessary stress on our loved ones, and can lead to family infighting, guilt and hard feelings that last a lifetime.
  5. Estate planning is as much about our values as it is our valuables. Unfortunately, most people, including most attorneys, seem to miss this. Our legal system is failing us! When we sit down with clients to discuss their estate plan, they frequently bring up things such as “We don’t want to be a burden to our children” or “We want to be fair to all of our children” or “We want our children to continue to get together and like each other and spend holidays together.” They don’t want money or their death to impact their children’s relationships. We spend time with our clients to understand important values such as these and make sure they are incorporated into our clients’ estate plans.
  6. We believe in a team approach to planning. This extends to utilizing the talents of the Stockton & Stern team as well as other important advisors, such as the financial planner, insurance agent, and CPA.
  7. We strive to forge close, personal, long-lasting relationships with our clients. In short, we want to be your “counselors for life.”

Planning for Minor Children

As we have seen, virtually every family can benefit from having an estate plan of its own. Parents with minor children, however, must have a plan, no matter how “small” their estate may seem. Why? If something tragic happens to you and your spouse, and you do not have a plan, your children will be raised by people you have not chosen yourself. This could be a person or institution you would never have wanted to have such authority.

Every parent should name both an immediate guardian and a long-term guardian for their children. The immediate guardian is often overlooked by parents and attorneys. If we name only a permanent guardian and that guardian lives in another state, for example, the children will likely be placed in temporary foster care until such time as the Court can hear the matter and approve the appointment of the permanent guardian, together with the relocation of the children. By naming guardians in advance, painful episodes such as this will be avoided.

Another factor to consider is what will happen to your children when they turn 18. Many parents mistakenly believe that they will still be able to make medical decisions for their child in the event of serious injury or illness. They don’t realize that once the child turns 18, no one has a right to make these decisions unless the child grants them that authority through a written advanced medical directive known as a medical power of attorney.

If you have children but no plan in place for their short and long-term care, contact us as soon as possible for a free consultation. We can ensure that your children will be cared for according to your wishes in the event tragedy strikes.

The Estate Planner’s Tool Box

Protection every family needs: The six essential estate planning documents.

We can put a wide range of estate planning tools and strategies to work on your behalf. Here is a brief introduction to six of the most important planning documents.

Wills

A will is at the heart of most estate plans. It is an important method of distributing assets to your children and other loved ones. For some people, creating a will may be all that is necessary. However, that is rare. Most people can benefit from additional protections. Our estate planning lawyers offer honest counsel about how to best meet your needs.

Trusts

Trusts are powerful and flexible estate planning tools. Unlike wills, they can also provide asset protection and disability planning during your lifetime. We are well-versed in the many available trusts. Estate plans often include a revocable living trust. We also know how to create specialized trusts, including Medicaid planning trusts and veterans trusts.

Durable Powers of Attorney for Legal and Financial Decisions

We cannot stress enough the importance of having a robust, comprehensive and up-to-date durable power of attorney in place. This vital document allows you to choose, in advance, a person you trust to make important legal and financial decisions on your behalf in the event of incapacity. Without durable powers of attorney, someone will petition the Court to obtain the authority to make legal and financial decisions for you should you not be able to make these decisions yourself. This could be someone you would never have chosen yourself to have this authority. The consequences could be financially devastating for you and your loved ones.

Medical Power of Attorney

A medical power of attorney is an estate planning document that gives someone you trust, referred to as your agent or your attorney-in-fact, the right to make medical decisions on your behalf when you cannot. Your agent will be able to give or deny consent to medical professionals about the types of care you want to receive. In your medical power of attorney document, you can outline very specific instructions for your agent to follow.

Living Wills

Medical powers of attorney are often confused with living wills. While they both address the issues that arise in the event of an incapacitating illness or injury, there are important distinctions. First and foremost, a living will only cover situations in which the condition is deemed terminal by two doctors or where you have been declared to be in a persistent vegetative state. It can include a do-not-resuscitate order and other written directions. A medical power of attorney provides direction for your medical care in situations in which you are unable to make decisions on your own behalf. It is important to have both a living will and a medical power of attorney in your estate plan. Our lawyers will help you understand your options to build an estate plan that is right for you. Contact us today to schedule a complimentary consultation.

HIPAA Release

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) established national standards to protect the privacy of patients’ health care information by regulating the use and disclosure of “protected health information.” An HIPAA release ensures your loved ones and decision makers can gain access to medical information about your condition when they need it. Without one, even your spouse or children may not be able to get information about your condition in an emergency.