End of Life Planning: When to consider it, what it entails, and why it matters
People hold many myths about wills.
Some people imagine that wills are only for the old or the unwell, when in truth, people in many different life phases would benefit greatly from the document.
Some people think that wills are only for the very rich, or only for the divvying up of wealth and assets, when in actuality they have implications for many different areas of a person’s life.
Some people think that wills are the only end-of-life documentation that matters, when in reality, they’re just one component of a comprehensive estate planning strategy.
Jason M. Rawlins, Esq., founder of Rawlins Asack, LLC, formerly known as The Law Offices of Jason M. Rawlins in Bridgewater, devotes a substantial portion of his practice to estate planning services.
He says that one of the most important things for people to under-stand is that estate planning, including the drafting of a will, is a highly personalized process.
“People may have a misperception that there are cookie-cutter estate plans, or one-size-fits-all estate plans, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.
He explains how many people will go online and complete a generic will generator, a practice he strongly cautions against.
“It gives people a false sense of comfort, that they did what everyone said they should do,” he warned. “It may do nothing that you want it to do, and it may even cause more harm than if you were to do nothing.”
Rawlins believes that every will – every estate plan – needs to begin with a person’s unique goals. From there, an experienced lawyer can help take that information and put it into practice, in terms of executing documents that meet those goals and comply with both state and federal considerations.
Not only can a lawyer help with the drafting of a will, but they should be able to answer all of your questions and make as many edits to drafts as you need to feel comfortable. At Rawlins’ practice, they even “arrange to have the required witnesses here in our office so that we ensure all the formalities of execution are done properly,” he says, and this includes formal notarization.
Anyone over the age of 18 can prepare a will, though Rawlins says that the document be-comes more important in a few specific scenarios.
“It’s probably a bit more important if you have children, because it can give you the opportunity to nominate someone to potentially become your child’s guardian,” he says, though he clarifies that this is not a binding nomination; rather, it simply gives you the ability to weigh in on guardianship considerations.
Another important time to consider creating a will is as you accumulate assets, and that can come at any time or at any age.
He says that wills can also be very important in mixed family settings, where you want to make sure that things are passed in a certain way that may be different than what the legislature would dictate for you.
“The bottom line is if you don’t have a will, and you die, the legislature really dictates where your assets go [known as intestate succession], whereas with a will, you are directing where your assets go,” he says, acknowledging that there are, of course, certain limitations and caveats to these general scenarios.
Beyond divvying up assets, money, and property, one critically important part of a will is appointing someone to be in charge of your estate, known as a Personal Representative (formerly referred to more commonly as an executor, or executrix). This person is responsible for gathering your assets and distributing them in accordance with your will.
Rawlins emphasizes that the will is just one piece of a larger estate planning strategy. Thinking beyond the will, “estate planning encompasses not just what happens if you pass away, but it also takes care of what happens if you become incapacitated,” says Rawlins, highlighting what he considers to be the two most important documents for that scenario: the health care proxy, and the power of attorney.
The health care proxy allows someone to make health care decisions for you should you become incapacitated and unable to make your own health care decisions.
“That’s vitally important, because without that, your loved ones would have to go into court and become your court-appointed guardian, which is a very long, expensive process,” he ex-plains. A similar scenario can play out when it comes to the power of attorney, which allows someone to control your assets for your benefit if you’re incapacitated.
“Without a power of attorney, your family would have to go into court and become a court-appointed conservator over you. And just like becoming a guardian, this is very expensive and time-consuming.”
He says one common misperception is that spouses can automatically serve as a health care proxy or pow-er of attorney for an incapacitated spouse, but this isn’t true, reiterating just how important these official designations can be.
And this ties into one of the most important considerations as to why someone should consider an estate plan. Much more than simply making sure your money or assets are given out according to your wishes, Rawlins explains that a thoughtfully drafted estate plan can reduce the stress of your loved ones in the event of your serious illness or death.
“What you’re trying to do is relieve them of the burden that they would be left with if you passed, or became incapacitated. With an estate plan, the whole goal of it really is to give you the peace of mind that your loved ones are put in a position that you’re comfortable with.”
He describes his first-hand experience watching people go through the multifaceted burden of simultaneously grieving the death of a loved one, planning a funeral, and wrangling the legal complications of estate planning. Much like pre-planning a funeral, thoughtful estate planning can free up your loved ones to grieve properly at the time of your death.
“I’ve seen people go through this. A loved one is sick, nothing has been planned, and they have to go through this court process to become a guardian or a conservator,” Rawlins explained. “When you’re having to deal with all these additional things, your grieving can be thrown off, and it’s vitally important that you properly grieve a death. To throw this additional stress into the mix can actually hamper your ability to move forward.”
So despite these understandable benefits, why is it that people often resist the drafting of a will or official estate planning?
Rawlins believes it comes down to a few factors.
“I think one reason is that people have a very difficult time talking about their demise,” he says. “And understandably so. It’s not an easy subject to contemplate.”
Others might think that since they’ll be dead before the documents matter, it’s not worth their time or energy right now.
Finally, he believes “some people don’t analyze the cost-benefit analysis. They look at the small, upfront cost of estate planning documents as something they don’t feel like extending resources on, but they’re not looking at the larger, long-term expense that will come by not doing these things.”
The price of this legal work can often be the elephant in the room. So what might these services actually cost? It all depends, and prices vary based on whether you’re simply drafting a will (which might be somewhere in the $350 range) versus putting together a more comprehensive estate planning package, including the aforementioned documents related to health care proxy and power of attorney (packages that are more likely to begin in the $1,500 range.)
Rawlins and his colleagues are conscious of people’s hesitancy to do this vital work, and he says that his practice tries to remove every obstacle they can, just to get people in the door to start having these important conversations.
“We try to make it as easy on people as possible,” he says, explaining that their estate planning consultations are free, and people are not required to bring in extensive paperwork to that first meeting. “There are enough excuses already to not do this.”
The goal of that free, initial consultation, Rawlins explains, is to “get a sense from you about your goals. And to educate you, as well, about your options. After that consultation, we’ll follow up with a more in-depth and specific questionnaire.”
Rawlins says that there’s no need to be intimidated by meeting with a lawyer, and that just like when you’re looking for other professional services, such as a primary care doctor, you should keep looking until you find someone who feels like a good fit for you and your needs.
“You shouldn’t just go with the first lawyer you find. You should go with the one who makes you feel the most comfortable,” he says. “If I’m doing my job right, you’re going to be my client for a long time. We’re going to need to have import-ant conversations and you need to be comfortable having those with me, and be confident that I’m capable of helping you with those things.”
Even after a will is executed, changes will likely have to be made over the years. Life circumstances that may require changes to your estate planning documents include marriage, the birth of children and grandchildren, changes to your choice of Personal Representative, divorce, the death of one of your beneficiaries, or substantial changes in your assets.
A graduate of Bridgewater-Raynham High School, Rawlins went to Bowdoin College before attending the New England School of Law in Boston. His judicial clerkship, as well as his early work in private practice, all revolved around estate planning and probate services.
He opened his own practice in West Bridgewater in 2011 before moving to Bridgewater four years ago.
In 2019, Attorney Rawlins partnered with Attorney Alyssa Asack to provide even more in-depth and extensive elder law services. The Firm is now known as Rawlins Asack, LLC.