Thinking Ahead
Locals make moves to protect their families and ensure their legacies by enlisting the help of attorneys with roots in estate planning
by Bob Craig

It is never too late to start preparing for the future. And it’s never too soon, either.

Planning an estate early can help eliminate much of the uncertainty that lies ahead, which can materialize in the form of unforeseen illness and complications from aging. The time to begin planning is now, according to attorneys who specialize in elder law, estate planning and estate administration, regardless of one’s age, asset base and financial situation.

“It’s good to start the process as early as possible because you never know when something will happen,” says Michael D. Raisman, an attorney with Karen Ann Ulmer P.C., which has offices in Doylestown, Langhorne and Princeton, N.J. “Go through your estate plan every time there’s a life change: marriages, divorces, having children, having grandchildren and when a family member passes away. It’s never too early.”

Raisman has rooted his practice in estate law and estate administration, family law and real estate law. Having received his Juris Doctor degree from Syracuse University College of Law in 2006, Raisman is well versed in these areas of law and urges all individuals to start preparing as early as possible.

Debra G. Speyer, another local attorney who specializes in estate law and estate administration, suggests that people can start the process as soon as they begin their career. “I would say that if you have some money and want to be specific, you can begin the process as soon as you start working,” says Speyer, whose practice maintains offices in Bala Cynwyd and Center City Philadelphia. “The next step would be when you get married. You want to make sure everything is in place.”

Like most areas of the law, estate planning tends to be complicated and comes with many often misunderstood technical terms and misconceptions. To put it plainly, estate planning is the process of anticipating and arranging for the disposal and distribution of an individual’s estate during his or her lifetime.

“[Estate planning] is planning for the future to reduce tax implications and to make sure your assets go where you want them to go to best benefit your beneficiaries and your family after you pass away,” Raisman says. “It eliminates many complications in the future.”

Many individuals, because they often do not know where to begin, put off estate planning until a time of crisis; but attorneys with practices based in estate law say that the first stage in planning can be as simple as making a list. “First, go through all of your assets to figure out and determine what you have,” Raisman adds. “Make a list of your debts, assets and obligations. Also make a list for your beneficiaries; it makes it easier for you and them.”

After making lists and getting one’s assets in order, the next step is to find the right attorney to make sure one’s wishes are carried out. When making this decision, it is essential to select an attorney who specializes in estate planning, wills and elder law because they’re specifically trained and certified to do so. The intangibles of comfort and familiarity are critical when choosing an attorney, according to John B. Whalen Jr., a Chesterbrook-based attorney who specializes in estate planning.

“Remember one thing,” he says. “Your lawyer works for you and not the other way around. If the client is not happy with the lawyer, end of story. Go to someone else.”

Before hiring an attorney, it may be best to reach out to a potential executor. Choosing a viable and trusted executor just may be one of the most critical decisions one can make during the process of forming an estate plan. The person chosen as the executor of an estate must be “stoic,” according to Whalen. This individual is the person who will be making the hard decisions later down the road. In the event of a crisis, an executor will be the one dealing with the doctors, lawyers and family members.

Many families appoint the oldest surviving child as the executor, though Whalen suggests that there are many other important factors that come into play while making this decision.

“Just because they’re the oldest doesn’t mean they’ll be best for the job,” he says. “You have to name someone in your life to carry out your wishes. Look at the people in your life. Who has the right traits for the job? Will your eldest son do what he has to do or might there be something in his way that will prevent him from carrying out your wishes? [The person you choose] must be able and willing, and if they’re not, forget about it.”

Planning an estate comes along with many complications and potential unforeseen circumstances. To avoid these complications in a time of crisis, it’s best to begin the process as early as possible. Speyer suggests that in any situation, it’s best to have a plan set in motion before getting to the point of having to make decisions under duress.

“Nobody thinks as level headed as they would if they planned ahead while in a time of crisis,” Speyer says. “Make sure everything is planned out. You never want to do anything while you’re in crisis mode.”

In addition, adjusting an estate plan to accommodate any changes in an individual’s life reduces the potential surprises in the future, according to Raisman. “Revise your estate every time there’s a life change or even every 10 years,” he says. “You want to make sure it’s up to date and up to the ever-changing state guidelines, especially as people’s estates grow and shrink over their lifetimes.”

Estate Planning Resource Guide
A number of locally based law firms have highly skilled attorneys who have rooted their practices in estate planning and estate administration. Following are some of the best, as voted by readers for our most recent “Awesome Attorneys” feature.

Antheil Maslow & MacMinn LLP

Dolan Law Office LLC

Fox Rothschild LLP

Friedman Schuman P.C.

Hamburg, Rubin, Mullin, Maxwell & Lupin P.C.    

Hopkins & Hopkins

John B. Whalen Jr., Esq.

Karen Ann Ulmer P.C.
Langhorne, Doylestown

KMS Law Offices

The Law Office of Debra G. Speyer
Philadelphia, Bala Cynwyd

MacElree Harvey
West Chester, Kennett Square

Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP

The Robinson Law Firm
Bala Cynwyd

Semanoff Ormsby Greenberg & Torchia LLC
Huntingdon Valley

Timoney Knox LLP
Fort Washington

Weber Gallagher

Yardley Legal Services P.C.