By: Olivia R. Holcombe-Volke – Partner, Elville and Associates, P.C.
Let me start with a PSA (public service announcement). Everyone over the age of 18 should have a basic estate plan in place. This advice is based upon the reality of the risk of incapacity – from which no one is exempt – and the desire to protect against court-ordered guardianship. It has nothing to do with the amount of money you have. If you are 18 and have a significant amount in assets, good for you – you definitely need to call me. But if you are the more common 18 year old, with a checking account and (maybe) a car, you still need to call me, because you are now considered an adult in the eyes of the law. If you trip and fall and suffer a traumatic brain injury, and you don’t have a basic estate plan in place, you risk that the court must become involved in your life in order for anyone, including your parents, to be able to help you.
I am an attorney, and my areas of expertise are estate planning, special needs planning, and asset protection planning, with some estate and trust administration, elder law, tax, and fiduciary litigation knowledge and experience thrown in for good measure. Luckily, I work at a law firm where there are experts in all of these areas, and so my clients, and any clients of Elville and Associates, can feel secure in the guidance they receive from us regarding trusts (of any kind), wills, advance directives, financial powers of attorney, guardianship, probate, SSI/SSDI/DDA/Medical Assistance, veteran’s benefits, fiduciary litigation, nursing home placements, and many other ancillary matters that fall within these areas.
What I am not equipped to do, other than know enough to be dangerous, is to carry out Roth conversions on traditional IRAs, or instruct on the proper diversification of investments, or whether long-term care insurance or 529 college savings planning are appropriate pieces in a client’s overall financial puzzle. When clients have questions about anything of this sort, the appropriate expert to bring into the conversation is a financial planner.
Which leads me to my second PSA, which is that if you have questions about planning your financial future, or the right investments to make with your money, you need the guidance of a financial planner. If you have hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting around and you are not sure what to do with them, you definitely need a financial planner. But even if you are nowhere near that, if you desire guidance or to have questions answered regarding your financial actions, a financial planner is the expert you need.
In what I found to be an amusing exchange, a family member who is starting her professional career in the financial planning world, with whom I have been family for 11 years, recently said to me, “You do trusts? I didn’t realize!” Now, whether or not this is indicative of the fact that I am a good dinner companion who does not dominate the conversation with talk of my honorable status as one of millions of attorneys, I found this to be insightful, speaking to the reality that I am extremely well-versed in what I do, but not necessarily so in the areas of expertise of other professionals. And that the same is true for other professionals.
This insight was additionally bolstered by a recent comment from a potential client, who said, “My financial advisor said I don’t need to do a Revocable Trust to avoid probate – I can just set all of my accounts up to be POD (payable on death).” This was actually the second time I had heard this in as many months. As a brief aside, the reason not to do this, as a general rule, is because this type of “plan” risks any number of contingencies (the recipient of the POD asset is deceased when the time comes, or in the process of divorce, or is being sued, or is receiving government means-tested benefits that they will lose if they receive the POD asset – just as a few examples). A well written Will or Revocable Trust (or other estate planning document) will address many, many contingencies, and provide many contingency plans, to address the “what ifs” that may exist or occur at the actual time of death. But my overarching point is that clients who rely solely on their financial planners for estate planning advice are getting expert advice from the wrong type of expert – and vice versa.
I would argue that everyone over the age of 18 needs to have a basic estate plan in place. And I would also argue that most adults, if not all, will benefit from having a financial plan in place. The key is using the right expert in the right role. A quality estate planning attorney will recognize her or his areas of expertise, and not attempt to provide guidance on subject matters that fall outside of those areas of expertise. The same is true – or, should be true – for other professionals with other areas of expertise. The best experts in their respective fields know this, and will help guide clients accordingly.