Where there's a will,
there's a way
If you have put off estate planning because you don’t know where to begin, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and the N.C. Bar Association have developed a World Wide Web site that can serve as a starting point.
While the Web site does not replace the services of an attorney to iron out the legal details of estate planning and will writing, it can help people to be more prepared when they sit down with their attorneys, says Carol Schwab, professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and a Cooperative Extension specialist.
The site, called “Planning Your Estate,” combines a great deal of information that was already on the Web, but is now all linked to one site. Last summer, Schwab completed the site, which can be reached at http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/estates/.
Schwab, who is an attorney and has conducted hundreds of workshops on estate planning across the state, says that those who die without a will in North Carolina do have an estate plan, but not necessarily one that reflects their wishes. “You have an estate plan without a will: The state of North Carolina has written it for you,” she says.
Dying without a will is just one of the issues that the Web site addresses. And there are many more. The site answers questions and helps guide people through the process of planning an estate.
Comprehensive estate planning involves more than just writing a will and may include a letter of last instruction, a durable power of attorney, a health care power of attorney, a living will, an advance instruction for mental health treatment and one or more trusts. The Web site describes these documents, how they are used and why you may need them.
When you go to an attorney for estate planning, often you will be asked to fill out a questionnaire from which the attorney will prepare estate documents. This Web site leads you through many of the same questions that an attorney would, while providing informational links throughout the questionnaire. “People will be filling this out, making informed decisions,” Schwab says.
For instance, when the questionnaire asks whom you would like to be the executor of your estate, the Web site will provide a link to a definition of “executor,” along with information on what an executor is responsible for and important qualifications for choosing an executor.
Because most attorneys bill by the hour, having information prepared ahead of time can reduce the hours required to develop an estate plan and give you a better understanding of what to expect from your attorney.
The Web site is designed as a tool to help families start talking about estate issues. And while it’s easy to put it off and hard to set aside time and money for estate planning, those who invest in such preparation will feel a sense of security and accomplishment knowing they have made preparations for their own death, Schwab says. Though the site is based on North Carolina estate law, people from other states will find the planning process helpful.
“I tell people to think of the time and money spent on estate planning as a gift you give to your family. Then, it’s easier to spend that time and money,” she says.
The Bar Association’s Elder Law Section, which Schwab chaired last year, provided support for the on-line estate-planning site. Elder law is a more holistic approach, providing information not just on writing a will, but also other issues that older adults face.
When younger adults attend Schwab’s workshops, they are usually there to ask questions about their parents’ estate.
“Estate planning is probably most important for a husband and wife with young children, yet they are the last ones who want to face these issues,” she says.
For young parents, a will can define who will care for children if both parents die, how the children will be supported and how they will pay for college. “An estate plan,” Schwab says, “can answer those questions,”