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With a Will Comes Peace of Mind

Washingtonians should really do it, estate planning attorneys say

Barbara Sherland’s official job is working as an estate planning attorney at Stoel Rives in Seattle. In reality, she takes on many additional roles: therapist, confidante, life coach. Her mission: to help clients plan for the inevitable and make sure their wishes are carried out after they die. Every day, clients come into Sherland’s office and reveal not only their personal financial information but their most intimate thoughts about life.

Death and taxes

“Sometimes I meet with a client and they say, ‘If I die …’ and I say, ‘No, it’s when,’ ” says Sherland in a compassionate tone. “‘We know this is going to happen. Let’s try as best we can to plan for it.’”

To Sherland, this is not depressing. Far from it. “You get to talk to people, and they’ll tell you what’s really important in life. It’s the heart of what we all are.”

Estate planning can be considered the sum total of birth, school, work, taxes, death—and more. It’s also about determining what type of legacy a person wants to leave behind. “You’re hitting right at the core of one’s essence and values,” says Sherland.

Legal documents to die for

Every estate plan should include, at minimum, three essential components that Sherland calls “documents to die for”: a will, a durable power of attorney and a health-care directive (also referred to as advance directives or end-of-life directives). Experts agree assembling an estate plan is a good idea for most people, including the recently married, new parents and those with any sizable wealth.

Carrie Simchuk, a partner at Perkins Coie in Seattle, says this isn’t something that should be put off. “I can’t think of anything that is more important than making sure that your family will be planned for and there will be a smooth transition if something were to happen to you prematurely or unexpectedly,” says Simchuk. “I don’t think it’s a place to cut corners.”

Conflict resolution

A well-crafted estate plan can reduce the likelihood of conflicts, including loved ones and family members challenging a will. “What the estate planner can do is to create and put into place a clear estate plan,” says Simchuk. “If there is a challenge, you know the plan in place is one that is effective and should be binding.” Additionally, a no-contest clause can be included in a will to say that any person who challenges it will be disinherited.

Do it for the kids

A will dictates who will care for children if their parents become incapacitated or die. Choosing a guardian is not an easy decision. “It’s really tough for a lot of parents,” notes Sherland. “They can’t imagine someone else raising their children. But if they don’t do it, the court is going to appoint someone.”

Siblings and parents are the first choice for many people, but other factors can come into play. “A lot of times [parents’] siblings can be all across the country. Their parents will really want their kids to stay in the same area, particularly if the kids are older and established in school with their own friends. So they may appoint a friend as guardian.”

Worth the price

Even the most basic estate plan can benefit from the advice of an experienced attorney who is familiar with state laws, says Kenneth Schubert Jr., an attorney with Garvey Schubert Barer in Seattle.

“People always want a simple will,” says Schubert. “They want to keep the cost down. Everyone has enough complexity in their life; they don’t want to add to it.”

Schubert says the cost of developing a basic estate plan, which starts at roughly $750, is a small price to pay for peace of mind — and possibly to avoid much more in estate taxes.

Wealth transfers

One way to ease the tax consequences of transferring wealth to the next generation is by establishing a trust. Parents can tailor these to suit themselves by choosing an age at which children can access the money, or circumstances under which it would be available at a younger age.

Families with considerable assets often create their own charitable foundations as a way to leave a meaningful legacy and also reduce the taxes on transferred wealth. “Children can serve on the board of the foundation and work together with parents to decide which charities should benefit from their family wealth,” says Simchuk.

“It’s a way to teach family members [and] second and third generations about wealth preservation and/or doing well for others through charitable giving. And after the parents pass away, the children would continue to serve on that board and continue to make decisions concerning which charities they want to support.”

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of estate planning, wills, trusts, and probate and estate administration.

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