The role of the estate planner is to discern the intent of the testator and to express those wishes for the dispositon of property and the care of his or her family after death in as sensitive, cost-effective and tax-efficient manner as possible.
To a certain extent divining the intent of the testator requires the draftsperson to "get inside the head" of the client. Rarely are
family dynamics simple and straightforward; nuances must be understood as the client understands them for the planner to succeed.
Basic information, such as identifying assets owned or controlled by the client and spouse, their value and exact registration and ownership, can be collected using one or another data sheet designed for that purpose. Information assembled in this manner must be verified. It is a simple fact that the printed name on an account statement might not reflect the true ownership. Additionally, the data sheet might not accurately reflect the most recent beneficiary designation on life insurance, annuities, IRAs or 401-k plans. Clients who understand the interview process appreciate the care taken to ensure the accurate enumeration of assets.
Such detail is necessary to fashion a "roadmap" for assets passing under a will and for those which will pass outside the will pusuant to beneficiary designations in life insurance policies, annuities, IRAs and 401-k plans or pusuant to myriad "testamentary subsitutes" such as joint bank accounts, totten trust bank accounts or TOD designations on brokerage accounts. Moreover, correct enumeration of assets and their valuation helps to allow the planner to assess the need to take into account the possibility of estate tax.
Information regarding the client's family tree, even when not directly necessary to articulation of a client's dispositive wishes, can be very helpful. By comparing the family tree to the provisons of New York's statute of descent and distribution the planner can deduce what relatives would likely be involved in an estate settlement proceeding, whether or not beneficiaries. The depth and breadth of such information depends upon the family compositon -- those with children and grandchildren are less likely to need to provide information about parents, aunts and uncles than those without descendants.
To further ensure the quality of documents and the data upon which they are based, the client should receive one or more
copies of draft documents to review and question. To be sure, there are always issues that elude precise analysis or solution, but
there is no room in estate planning for errors which might have been identified by unhurried client review.
Quality of end-product of the planning process, whether will or trust, health care proxy or power of attorney, is best assured by
active client participation. Clients who question are often the best informed. Estate planning requires judgmental decisions and
well-informed clients are better equipped to handle them well.