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Expert Advice on Estate Planning for Homeowners: An Interview with Sheryl Dennis of Fields & Dennis, LLP.

By Sheryl Dennis

Tell us a little bit about your company and the areas of law that you practice.

We have designed a firm that is able to handle the needs of families. My primary areas of practice are real estate and estate planning including business succession planning, special needs trust planning, guardianships and conservatorship. My partner, Jonathan Fields practices in the area of family law. He not only is a litigator but also a mediator. He is experienced dealing with the most complex issues involved in family law including parenting plans, business valuations, deferred compensation, stock options and a multitude of other issues.

Is there something that most people don't know about estate planning that they should know?

People tend to think of estate planning as something that only wealthy individuals need. Everyone should have the basic estate planning which include a healthcare power of attorney or proxy, HIPAA release, power of attorney for financial matters, living will and will. For people with children, we always suggest a stand-by guardianship in the event something happens to the parents, even on a temporary basis. Many people do not realize that with regard to estate taxes, Massachusetts de-coupled from the Federal government and here, once your estate reaches $1,000,000 the entire estate is subject to estate tax. With the value of real estate, it is very easy to exceed $1,000,000.

What are some of the biggest reasons that estate planning is essential for homeowners?

As I said previously, estate tax avoidance, at least upon the death of the first if we are speaking of married individuals and perhaps estate tax avoidance all together if the proper transfers are done to trust. Avoidance of probate, which is costly and time consuming, is another reason. Older individuals may decide to deed the house to a child or grandchild without considering that once the transfer is made, the house is subject to the child's or grandchild's creditors and also is an asset of the child or grandchild if there is a divorce. There are numerous mechanisms for protecting the house without transferring to an individual.

Can you give a brief breakdown of the key steps in the estate planning process you go through with your clients?

Prior to the client coming in for the first meeting, we send out a questionnaire requesting not only family information but financial information along with a series of questions to determine what the individual wants to accomplish with estate plan:
1) Is it estate tax avoidance?;
2) Is it property protection?;
3) Is it to ensure that a property, either primary or vacation, remains in the family?;
4) Is it to ensure payment of grandchildren's education?;
5) Is there a beneficiary with special needs who will be inheriting but is receiving benefits that need to be protected?

We then meet with the clients to design a plan that will accomplish the goals set out for us. After the design meeting, we prepare the draft documents and forward a summary to the clients. We generally have a telephone discussion if there are questions or issues and sometimes we will have a meeting to review the documents. Next, we schedule a signing appointment, at which time we go over, in detail, all of the documents with the clients, they will sign and lastly, we produce a binder and a USB with the complete executed estate plan.

What is one of the challenges that homeowners face when they're creating an estate plan?

The challenge, many times, is to convince the homeowner, not to simply deed the property to a child or grandchild but to illustrate the various ways a property can be protected from estate tax, probate or the cost of nursing home care through the use of trusts.

What happens when someone wants to make changes to their estate plan?

This depends on the documents that are currently in place. If a person has only a will, then a change may be as simple as drafting a codicil. If the individual has a trust or multiple trusts, the trust document will instruct the attorney as to how an amendment is to be carried out. Again, it may be as easy as drafting an amendment to the trust, amending and restating the trust, or in some instance, obtaining court approval to amend the trust.

What practical advice do you have for homeowners who have not given much thought to creating an estate plan?

Creating an estate plan is the smart and prudent thing to do. During a time of great stress and emotional upheaval, the last thing most people want for their spouse and children is to wonder how the person wanted their property distributed after their death. Without an estate plan in place, there may be serious economic consequences along with a protracted probate process involving the courts.

What's the best way for people to contact you and your company?

I can be contacted at Fields and Dennis, LLP, 80 William Street, Suite 210, Wellesley, Massachusetts. The telephone number is 781-489-6776. Our website is www.fieldsdennis.com and you can follow the website to my estate planning blog.

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Phone: 781.489.6776

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