Estate Planning and Probate

How We Approach Estate Planning

We practice in this area because it surprises us that most people haven’t taken time to complete an estate plan even though they know that they should have one to protect their family. Our goal is to eliminate the three main obstacles to an adequate estate plan – cost, convenience and fear of lawyers – by using fixed fees, meeting with clients in our Allen offices or at their home or office, and explaining legal issues for each client. We have seen too many of our clients and friends quoted fees for an estate plan that are very high or that involve an overly complex and time-consuming plan, or worse use a one-size-fits-all cheap solution from the internet. Our approach is to keep it as simple and pain free as possible with the goal of providing a plan that is both easy to understand and easy to accomplish. Estate Planning isn’t, and doesn’t have to be, as expensive or time consuming as you might think.

Christiansen & Rawls focuses on providing you and your family the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you have provided for your loved ones when you are no longer able to do so, we help you to protect your assets and minimize any taxes, legal and probate costs in the future. Whether you are choosing the right person to care for your children if you are unable, planning for the lifetime care of a special needs child or transitioning your family business, we have the knowledge and experience to assist you.

While developing our practice, we realized that many of our friends and neighbors either didn’t have an estate plan in place that adequately provides for their family and protects their assets, or that they were paying downtown Dallas rates to have their estate plan completed. We realized that the reason many didn’t have a plan stemmed from one of three reasons, cost, convenience or not wanting to work with a lawyer. We try to remove all of these obstacles so everyone can create a sound estate plan.

Cost

We complete most estate planning work on a fixed fee basis.  After our free initial meeting where we get to know you and your unique requirements, we will provide you with a fixed price for implementing your recommended solution. That means we will do the work and make sure you understand your plan for a set price, regardless of the amount of time we spend.  We get to know you, so the plan we create meets your unique situation.

Convenience

We are conveniently located in the heart of Allen, Texas. We balance demanding work and family schedules so we understand that meeting during regular business hours doesn’t work for everyone. We schedule appointments at times that are convenient for you and will even come to your home or office to help you complete this critical task.

Working with Lawyers

We understand most people don’t work with lawyers frequently, or ever, and if they do it may be in an adversarial setting. We work with lots of lawyers every day, and trust us, we understand why people want to avoid lawyers.  Be assured that the estate planning process is focused on solving problems and preparing for future events, not reacting to an existing problem or dealing with conflict. Our entire focus during this process is to help you and your family avoid costly legal and probate fees and problems in the future.

We like to think we are not typical lawyers.  We use plain English to explain legal concepts and focus on helping you achieve what you want.  Our initial meeting gives us a chance not only to learn about you, but to tell you a little about us and how we work.  Our comfortable offices set our clients at ease and our fixed fees remove time pressure concerns for our clients.


What is Involved with an Estate Plan

Even if you haven’t executed a Will, you have an estate plan. Unfortunately, it is created by the State of Texas, and it isn’t very good. We can help you create and implement a plan that provides for the care of you minor children or other loved ones and the disposition of your assets the way you want. We do this trough a number of different documents depending on each person’s situation, typically including the following:

Wills

This is the most familiar document to most people.  A Will is a document that becomes active after a person passes away.  There are a number of technicalities that must be followed for a Will to be valid in Texas and for it to make the probate process less difficult.  If a Will is done correctly, the probate process can be fairly simple and inexpensive, saving the family left behind the time and expense of a difficult probate process.  More importantly the deceased’s wishes are carried out as they intended, not the way the State of Texas or the Courts mandate. In your Will you can:

• Choose who becomes guardian of your minor children and provide for how you want your children raised in your absence

• Choose your Executor (the person in charge of your estate)

• Choose who receives your assets and when

• Protect your child’s inheritance from a future step-parent and from creditors

• Make gifts to charity

• Disinherit a family member

• Minimize and possibly eliminate estate taxes

Trusts

This is another familiar term to most people, but less understood than a will. There are a number of different types of trusts that can be created depending on the desired result.  They can be used:

• To protect a minor child’s inheritance until they are mature enough to handle it

• To protect assets from someone’s “creditors and predators”

• To maintain privacy and avoid probate in some situations

• To address complex family dynamics

• To own out of state real estate

• For estate tax planning

To provide for a loved one with special needs without impacting their ability to obtain government services

The list of possibilities is almost endless

We do not sell reusable living trust packages unless a client’s specific situation requires the use of this expensive and complex planning tool.

Powers of Attorney

We provide the following documents to our clients to ensure that in the event of their incapacity or need for someone to act on their behalf the proper documents are in place to carry out their wishes:

• Medical Power of Attorney – giving someone the right to make medical decisions when you are unable and to provide that person with guidance as to your wishes

• General Durable Power of Attorney – giving someone the right to make financial and other daily non-medical decisions when you are unable

• Directive to Physicians or Living Will – giving someone the right to make end of life decisions and allows you to guide them in the event you have a terminal illness or an irreversible condition and your doctor determines nothing more can be done for you

• HIPAA – this allows your medical information to be released to the appropriate parties

Beneficiary Designations

We work with our clients and their financial advisors to make sure that their beneficiary designations on bank accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance, investment accounts and other accounts work together with their estate plan.  Beneficiary designations control where funds are distributed regardless of what is provided in a Will or a Trust as most of these accounts are considered “non-probate” assets.

Revocable Living Trust

Revocable living trusts can be utilized to simplify the probate process, but we tend to think they are overly expensive and over utilized. We would be happy to help you with a Revocable Living Trust, but only if the extra expense and complexity makes sense in your situation.

Special Needs Planning

If you have a family member that will require government services for the remainder of his or her life, for example, a special needs child or an adult family member that is not able to live independently, you can inadvertently disqualify them from those benefits by leaving them a portion of your estate outright. Recipients of these programs are not permitted to have more than a nominal amount of assets before they are disqualified from the programs. It is still possible to provide for these family members and to ensure they can maintain a high quality of life while still receiving benefits, but special planning is needed.

Our involvement in Special Needs Planning is the result of our work with families with special needs children and our desire to provide high quality advice without unnecessary expense for families. While this area of the law is complex, we pride ourselves on providing clear guidance on the issues at an affordable cost.

Probate and Trust Administration

Probate is the legal process for settling someone’s estate. When someone passes away, that person’s Executor gathers an inventory of their property, pays their debts and divides everything that is left over among their heirs. An Executor is responsible for completing this process, but the Probate Courts and a probate attorney generally control the process. In Texas, if a person has a properly drafted Will, this probate process is typically efficient and relatively inexpensive. Absent a Will, the probate process can be time-consuming and very expensive, regardless of the size of a person’s estate.


Our Process

Some of our clients like to have a clear picture of what is involved in the estate planning process before they begin. That completely makes sense to us, and we want to make sure you are comfortable and there are no surprises.

Following is a general description of how we help our clients ensure that they protect their assets and provide for their families.  We attempt to do this as efficiently and painlessly as possible. Every family is unique, and our approach varies in some cases to make sure we do what is best for your family.  We are more than happy to spend time with you explaining what we are doing and why.  We promise we know all of the Latin phrases and IRS tax code provisions that we need to, but we will do our best to explain everything to you in plain English.

Unlike some firms that ask you to complete a 15 page questionnaire asking you to disclose every asset you own and what may be extremely personal information about your family, our preference is to speak with you first.  We can discuss your estate and family situation in broad strokes to make sure we collect just the information we need to help you accomplish your goals.

Initial Meeting

Our initial meeting is normally in person. Please contact us at 214.383.0200 to set up your free initial consultation.  If you are married, we require both spouses to participate to ensure the estate plan we design meets everyone’s goals. In addition, if you have an accountant, financial planner or just a trusted advisor you want to bring to the meeting, we are more than happy for them to attend and encourage their participation at the level at which you are comfortable.

At the initial meeting our focus is to get to know you and what you want to accomplish.  At the end of the meeting we will provide the following:

• A general description of what we would recommend for your estate plan

• A fixed fee for us to complete that plan

• A list of “homework” items for you to complete and return to us so we can draft the documents to accomplish your goals

You Decide to Complete the Estate Plan and We Get Started

If you decide to move forward we will provide you with an agreement to hire us to complete the estate plan we discussed. In legal jargon this is the “Engagement Letter.” Once you sign and return the agreement, submit the initial payment as discussed in the initial meeting and your homework items, we will get started preparing the documents for your estate plan.

Draft Documents for Your Review

We will send you a draft of the documents for your review. After you’ve had a chance to look them over, we can either meet in person or by phone to go through any questions or changes you may have.

Final Documents and Signatures

We will make any necessary changes based on your feedback on our drafts. When final documents are ready, we will arrange a meeting to sign the documents in our offices, your offices, your home or another convenient place for you. At this meeting we will make sure your documents are signed, witnessed and notarized to comply with Texas law. Once the documents are signed you can either keep the originals or we will store them in our safe deposit box for your convenience. We will also provide a complete set of copies for you to keep or share with your family, doctor, financial advisors, etc. We will collect the final payment at this meeting.

After Signing the Documents

After we’ve delivered your signed documents you can always call us if you have questions or if your life situation changes. We live here and intend to be available to advise you on whether you need to make changes to your plan.