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Making the Pieces Fit

Three attorneys’ tips for setting up an estate plan in New York City

When putting together an estate plan, the details matter. Even personal details. Even very personal details.

“This can be really hard for people,” says Jean Hegler, an estate planning and probate attorney at Brosnan & Hegler, LLP in Garden City. “They’re meeting you for the first time, and they have to tell you all the things about their family—who’s the alcoholic and who’s got a secret affair.”

Though it may be an uncomfortable conversation, says Hegler, it needs to take place so that your lawyer can properly prepare your documents and protect the people you want to inherit your property. “I always say: I think the only thing worse than coming to see us is going to see that root canal doctor.”

So when should you start the estate planning process?

“Certainly when people have young children,” says Kevin H. Cohen, an estate planning and probate attorney with his eponymous firm in White Plains. But there’s a proviso. Often, says Cohen, parents leave everything to their children outright; but minors are not entitled to receive assets until they turn 18.

“You may remember being that age, where that might not have been the best thing to have happen,” he adds. “So that’s why you create a trust for a child’s benefit, and they can access the money through a trustee. Without it, money would not be readily available to the person raising them.”

And don’t forget about access to digital assets. “For the journalist or photographer who may have their entire life’s work on the cloud, it’s important for the attorney to set up a way for passwords to be obtained if the client dies,” says Hegler.

Doris Martin, an estate planning and probate attorney at Garfunkel Wild in Great Neck, warns that a will does not govern all types of assets, such as IRAs or annuities. For those assets, it’s best to work with the financial institution itself.

“People think their wills say ‘I give it to A and B,’” she says, “but they don’t put A and B on [the institution’s] beneficiary forms, and it gets all mixed up. Lawyers generally prepare a durable power of attorney for people. But financial institutions are not legally obligated to accept it and they can give you a really hard time. It makes things a lot easier if you also contact the financial institutions and do their form.”

Martin adds: “Drawing up a will isn’t the whole job. It’s making sure all the pieces fit—that’s the battle.”

For more information on on living wills and living trusts, estate planning attorneys, estate planning documents (legal documents), beneficiary designations, the probate process (and probate court), medical powers of attorney, and estate planning lawyers (estate planners), and advance health care directives, see our overviews of estate planning, wills, trusts, and probate and estate administration.

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