How Does The Estate Planning Process Work?

Audio version of this article.

The estate planning process is such an important step in the life of a successful family. Yet, there is scant information available to describe what the process looks like. We are providing this road map for you as a resource, so you will know what to expect as you consider working with us to create or update your family’s estate plan. Our process is unique in many ways because we have thoughtfully designed it to give you the very best experience possible, not unlike the kind of VIP treatment you would receive at a luxury resort or fine bespoke tailor.

If you have any questions about anything in this article, please feel free to email firm@thomsonfirm.com, or call us at (713) 489-7101.

Pre-Planning Education

It is important that you develop an understanding of the basic terminology, concepts, and mechanics of the planning we will be undertaking together. This is your plan, and you are in the driver’s seat. To facilitate your acquisition of the relevant knowledge, we hold regular, live, in-person events at which we present this information, and give our honored guests (you) a chance to ask questions.

We also provide much of this information in various articles, blog posts, videos, and webinars. But in order to schedule an Estate Plan Design Meeting with one of our attorneys, you will be asked to first attend a live, in-person event. This way, we can be sure that you have been provided with the information necessary to make good decisions about your planning. A schedule of upcoming events can be found here.

The Questionnaire

The Questionnaire is a virtual, interactive form we use to gather all of the data points needed to begin designing your estate plan. It is housed on a secure, encrypted portal, and remains confidential and protected by the attorney-client privilege. Additionally, we will require at least the last two years of income tax returns (personal/business/trust), as well as any gift tax returns you’ve filed, in order to get a crystal clear picture of your financial and family situation. You will be provided a private link, specific to you, that you will use to upload your documents to our bank-grade-encrypted document vault (we use box.com for this), and are also protected by confidentiality and attorney-client privilege.

Estate Plan Design Meeting

The Estate Plan Design Meeting is where your work with us really begins. During this meeting, you and your attorney will get to know one another, and begin to build a relationship that will, hopefully, last for many years.

You’ll discuss any questions you may have from the Pre-Planning Education seminar or webinar you attended, or from The Questionnaire. Once both you and we are satisfied that your questions have been answered, we’ll discuss the substance of your Questionnaire.

During this discussion your attorney will ask a lot of questions, some of which may be difficult or uncomfortable to answer. Remember that your attorney is your advocate, and simply wants to give you the best advice possible, in light of all the available information. So, if you withhold information, you may not get the best possible advice.

Depending upon the relative complexity of your estate, we may go ahead and make recommendations during this meeting, or we may tell you that we will need to do a bit of analysis before making any recommendations. In the latter case, an additional meeting will be necessary.

The Second Meeting

At the follow-up meeting, we will present your options and make recommendations about what we believe you should do. We will also discuss price and time considerations. By the end of this meeting, you should have all the information you need to make a decision about moving forward, including the exact dollar cost and time it will take to complete the project(s).

It is during this meeting that you will either engage us to help implement your estate plan or we will part ways. If you decide to engage us, you will be asked to make an initial payment of some or all of the quoted fees at this time. You will also sign the engagement agreement and schedule your Review Meeting and Signing Ceremony during this meeting.

We do require a non-refundable deposit in order to schedule a Design Meeting. Your deposit will be credited toward the cost of your plan, should you decide to engage us.

Drafting The Documents

As soon as you engage us, we will set to work putting your plan documents together. No two cases are exactly the same, so each plan we create requires customization. Some require more customization than others. The level of customization your plan requires will impact the cost, but at this stage we will have already discussed this and it is reflected in the fixed fee.

Typically, it will take us about two weeks to put your plan documents together. Once the initial drafts are complete, we will invite you back to our office for your Review Meeting. We may call you with questions during the intervening weeks, or to clarify something discussed previously, so it is important to return these calls promptly in order to keep the estate planning process moving forward.

Review And Adjustments

Now that your initial drafts are complete, we will invite you back into our office for your Review Meeting. At this meeting, we will go through each document together in order to: (1) ensure all factual information is correct and correctly spelled, (2) ensure we have the right people in the right roles, (3) ensure your will and trust dispositions flow the way you intended, and (4) ensure your understanding of how each part of your plan works.

If any adjustments are needed, they will be noted during this meeting and completed prior to your Final Review and Signing Ceremony. These adjustments are, of course, included in the fixed fees for your planning.

Final Review

Your Final Review and Signing Ceremony will be scheduled during your Review Meeting, and usually falls within a few days after the Review Meeting. This gives you time to digest everything, and gives us time to make the adjustments discussed at the Review Meeting.

At your Final Review and Signing Ceremony, we will review the documents together once more to ensure all of the adjustments have been made to your satisfaction. Once both you and we are happy with the documents, the final versions will be printed on special, high quality paper for signing.

The Signing Ceremony is a very important part of the estate planning process, and must be done correctly in order for the documents (particularly your Last Will and Testament) to be valid.

Signing Ceremony

During the Signing Ceremony, you, your attorney, your witnesses, and a notary will meet in a conference room. Your attorney will give instructions, and then ask you two or three questions to demonstrate that you are of sound mind and understand what you are doing (i.e. signing your Last Will and Testament).

Once that is done, you will sign your plan documents, beginning with your Last Will and Testament. Since the witnesses are not needed for the other documents, they will be dismissed after the Last Will and Testament has been fully signed. You will then sign the remaining documents, and the Notary will notarize your signatures on those documents.

Once all of your documents have been fully executed, we will scan them to pdf format for the firm’s records, and then package them up for you to take with you. Within a day or so, you will also receive access to the firm’s virtual document vault, where the electronic copies reside. We provide this as an included service for one year, with the option to continue beyond that for a nominal annual fee.

Funding Your Plan

The funding of your plan is arguably the most important step in the estate planning process (assuming your plan includes one or more trusts or entities). That’s because this is the phase of your planning where all the things you’ve created get implemented and really start to work. Assets get re-titled, new accounts may need to be opened, and deeds will be executed and filed with the property records of the respective county.

Depending on the extent and complexity of your holdings, this phase may also take the most time to complete, and may require a separate fee agreement.

Periodic Refresh

Maintenance is a fact of life. Your houses, cars, businesses, boats, shoes, bicycles, etc., all require maintenance. Well, your estate plan is no different. Time has a tendency to affect change. Laws, circumstances, the extent of your wealth, and even your mind will change over time. For these reasons, it is critical that you periodically review and refresh your estate plan. We recommend you refresh powers of attorney at least every two years, and wills/revocable trusts every three to five years.

Fortunately, you won’t have to worry about remembering to do this because we will automatically send you reminders and call you to schedule your periodic reviews.

Conclusion

That is the estate planning process in a nutshell. If you have any questions, or to schedule an appointment, call our offices at (713) 489-7101.

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