When you think about lawyers, you probably think about impeccably dressed men and women standing up in a courtroom, furiously defending their client against whatever charges they are up against. Modern television shows have done well to popularize this image of the typical criminal defense lawyer, however there are actually many other kinds of lawyers as well, like the estate lawyer, who fulfills a much different role in society.
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- What is an Estate Lawyer?
- What do Estate Lawyers do?
- What Qualifies someone as an Estate Lawyer in the US?
- Why do I need an Estate Lawyer?
- Related Articles
What is an Estate Lawyer?
The word “estate” may conjure up images of sprawling mansions. While that’s not exactly what the “estate” in estate lawyer is referring to, it comes very close: the estate in this case is everything belonging to a person, which could include big houses and bank accounts, but also includes any items in your possession like cars or pets, essentially whatever makes up your net worth.
An estate lawyer works to organize all these possessions so that people are able to manage where their assets go following their death. Perhaps you’ve seen movies where a wealthy person dies and a lawyer has to dramatically read out to the family the hairy details of who is getting what, or seen a stern TV lawyer rebuke the stereotypical spoiled trust fund kid. Those lawyers are most likely estate lawyers doing their job to figure out how to properly manage someone’s money and belongings before and after their death.
What do Estate Lawyers do?
Estate lawyers work in a realm of law called estate law, which is made up of many other parts that lawyers may or may not choose to specialize in. Their responsibilities, though not limited to these, include:
1) Creating last wills and testament
If you wanted to leave part of your money to your spouse and children, and another part to a cause or organization that you are particularly passionate about, an estate lawyer could help you figure out the specifics of doing this so that everything is accounted for. This is probably the most well-known of an estate lawyer’s specialties.
2) Reducing costs resulting from inheritance taxes and probate
There are different rules around inheritance from country to country, but also from state to state. Depending on where you live, who your belongings go to and/or how they are split may vary. Estate lawyers (who are also known as probate lawyers) in your area should be very familiar with how the laws work in your region and thus be able to advise you accordingly.
3) Writing living wills
Writing a living will, or advance directive, allowing you to make informed decisions about your health and well-being in the case that you are physically or mentally incapacitated, say through an accident. This could help lessen the burden of having to make important decisions about your medical care on your family and friends, who may not be in the right state of mind to make decisions for you. With a living will you could specify things like whether you would like to donate your organs or if you would like to be kept on life support.
4) Setting up trusts
For those with dependents, this could be particularly crucial as estate lawyers could help you organize and manage the conditions, if any, of your chosen individual or entity receiving property, money, or other assets. For example, you may want a portion of your money to be specifically earmarked for your children’s schooling. A trust could help you make sure that money is being used how you intended it to, instead of leaving it up to your child who may not be ready yet to handle the responsibility.
5) Helping to figure out how to care for your dependent loved ones.
Perhaps you have decided on a godparent for your children who is not directly related to you and would like your children to be in their care if anything were to happen to you. An estate lawyer would help put that into writing as well as help manage the process to make sure your children are well taken care of if you were not around to do so.
6) Helping to Figuring out when to include something in a will and when not to.
There are many ways to entrust your belongings to people way before anything happens to you, and they don’t have to involve all the red-tape that comes with inheritances. By figuring out who gets what even well advance of an illness or accident, you can limit what goes in your will to more important things that can’t be transferred over during your life.
What Qualifies someone as an Estate Lawyer in the US?
Like most lawyers, estate lawyers must obtain a JD, or Juris Doctor, degree, after which they must pass the bar exam for whichever state (or states) they would like to practice in. While quite difficult and respectable endeavors, and while these milestones do allow people to practice as lawyers, specializing in estate law means having to build on-the-job skills and experience beyond that of classrooms and tests. So while many lawyers may have had some passing experience with estate law, it does not necessarily mean they will be able to help you with that area of law. It often takes training at or working with a qualified law firm for years to specialize in this kind of law, as is the case with the other parts of the legal system.
Therefore it is always best to ask or do your research on lawyers or law firms to see if they even offer the service you are looking for or if they offer a specific range of services catering to your needs, as well as check their background and years of experience. This may very well be someone you will have to build up a relationship with over time and so it’s important to find someone you feel that you can trust and depend on in the long-term. This will be someone who gets to know quite a lot about what you want and have, so rapport, while not a necessity, will only help the process of entrusting how your assets are divided up to this one individual.
Why do I need an Estate Lawyer?
Estate lawyers may seem unnecessary at first glance, but the reality is that consulting such a lawyer may do you more good in the long term. Inheritance laws vary from region to region and and can be a headache to deal with all on your own, so with the help of an estate lawyer, you can more easily navigate the process of leaving your loved ones what they need, should you ever be incapacitated in any way. You may be surprised to find out that there is a large amount of bureaucracy involved in the business of death, and so to lessen the blow on your friends and family, it would not be unwise to consult an estate lawyer who can figure out how to translate your needs into a language that the legal system can understand and thus honor accordingly.
And since the laws around inheritance are constantly changing with time, it helps to have someone who is always in the know about the nitpicky details of what you want to leave behind.
Furthermore, it is not uncommon to see deceased people’s belongings fought over by feuding family members, even with a will in play, especially if it is defined in broader terms than needed. This is commonly seen played out in movies and books, but it is also quite common in reality, especially when the deceased was particularly wealthy or was in possession of something particularly pricey.
Estate lawyers can help you anticipate where your assets may be contested and thus help avoid the extra headache. You know best who would appreciate your valuable collection of vintage electric guitars and it is probably not your mother who was never a fan of your rock-n-roll. It would be in your best interest for your most valued items to have a clear owner after your time so that they are as appreciated and well cared for as you would like them to be.
So many things could happen at any time and accidents happen every day, and so people prepare for these unfortunate possibilities by buying insurance or creating emergency plans. Figuring out where your assets go regardless of what physical or mental state you are in is just another way to be practical about what life may or may not have in store, and should be something to keep in mind as you get older.
To this end, consulting with an estate lawyer well in advance of whatever may occur would only bolster your peace of mind. You will know that your affairs are in order, no matter what may happen as you move forward in life.