Thai Food, Pierogis and Estate Planning

While we don’t go out as often as we’d like, my wife and I do enjoy a nice quiet evening (translation: no kids) out once in a while.  Like most folks this typically means heading out to a restaurant for a good meal.  Invariably, the toughest part of our evening is perusing the multitude of options on the menu and trying to decide what sounds especially appetizing.  Of course with my unsophisticated palate, I typically have to ask the waiter or waitress for definitions of some ingredients listed in the entrée description.

But one rule-of-thumb I always try to employ has never steered me wrong when trying to decide on what to order:  always pick something that aligns withpierogies the restaurants’ specialty.  Quite simply, this just means ordering a nice pierogi plate if we’re at a great Eastern European ethnic restaurant or a pad Thai at a Thai place.  There’s usually a reason the owner hired a chef that knows how to excel at that very specialty for which the restaurant wants to build or maintain its reputation.  And that chef usually knows all the tips, tricks and nuances for that specialty which can make all the difference between a great meal and a so-so meal.

Interestingly, I’ve seen the same dynamic play out when I help clients review or establish estate plans.  (Disclaimer:  I am NOT an attorney, nor to I draft documents or give legal advice.  I simply discuss the basic needs, engage a qualified attorney for legal work and ensure the legal side aligns with the financial big-picture).    Over the years, I’ve worked with everyone from “high-end” clients (and attorneys) with complicated estate planning needs to younger couples just starting out with the basics.

What I’ve discovered is the restaurant rule applies here too:  It pays to choose a “specialist” as estate planning can get very complicated, very quickly.

Now there are many attorneys who can legally draft estate planning documents like wills, trusts, durable (financial) power of attorney, living wills and health care powers of attorney.  But I’ve seen many attorneys offer estate planning on the “menu” alongside many other services such as divorces, DUIs, personal injury, etc.  While there is nothing legally or ethically wrong with this, I believe estate planning is best suited for a specialist.  Done correctly, estate planning requires attention to detail, experience and a broad perspective on many of life’s contingencies. But I can usually spot an attorney who “happens to do estate planning” by what look like boilerplate documents.  To me, it looks like the attorney pulled up a Word Doc template on which they just changed the names and addresses, then printed them out alongside their bill.  But the stakes can be high regardless of the amount of wealth as folks with anywhere between $500,000 to well beyond $10,000,000 in assets could end up with documents drawn up that do NOT align with their wishes.  This could mean an estranged son-in-law or some out-of-touch relative could unknowingly inherit assets intended for someone else.  It could also mean a monster estate tax liability, in some cases.  Of course, what usually comes next is hurt feelings (best case) and/or massive lawsuits (worst case).

So I’ve read enough estate planning documents and been in enough meetings to ask questions that my clients’ nor, it seems, their attorneys considered.  When a Certified Financial Planner® who never took a single legal class is finding holes in estate plans, it’s pretty obvious the attorney doesn’t specialize (or doesn’t care) and that’s big red flag. In these cases, I always recommend we engage an attorney who specializes in estate planning.  Of course engaging a specialist may cost a little more up front.  But when one considers how much can be saved in the form of hard dollars (legal, taxes, etc.) and family relationships, the investment is well worth it.

To me, it’s the equivalent of a Thai restaurant that offers pierogis.

Nothing against Thai chefs (I happen to love that food) but do you really think they could pull that off?  Probably not.  Engaging an experienced estate planning attorney who specializes in this area of practice, I believe families can avoid the potential for severe “heartburn” when it comes to efficiently and effectively settling an estate.

Bon Appetit!

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