Spouses Share Estate Planning Attorney?

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Spouses Share Estate Planning Attorney?

It’s a question that some couples should ask. For many, their estate is their estate together, right? Not always. There are benefits to using the same estate planning attorney. However, there may be reasons to use different attorneys, as discussed in the article “Should My Spouse and I Hire the Same Estate Lawyer?” from The Street.

If your estates are relatively simple and your interests are the same, it does make sense to use the same estate planning attorney. If there’s no need for sophisticated tax planning, yours is a first marriage with no children, or you own one piece of property, one attorney can represent both partners.

It’s important to understand joint representation. This means both partners and the attorney agree to share all information learned from one spouse with the other spouse. These terms are often outlined in the engagement letter signed when the attorney is retained.

However, life and marriages are not always so simple. Let’s say that one spouse owns property or a share of property in another state purchased before the marriage and not co-owned with the spouse. This often occurs when property is owned by members of the spouse’s immediate family, like a business property or a vacation home they own jointly with siblings or parents. It may also be property one spouse is likely to inherit with the expectation the property ownership remains solely with bloodline family members.

Note that owning property in another state will likely also require the services of another estate planning attorney who is familiar with the local laws. The out-of-state attorney can advise if there are any special planning considerations needed, such as placing property in a family-controlled entity, like a limited liability company or other family partnership.

Coordinating communication between the out-of-state attorney and the primary in-state attorney will be important, since there may be interrelated planning considerations to be addressed in wills or trusts.

What if you and your spouse have different communication styles? One wants a talkative attorney who wants to dive into long-term planning goals, engaging in discussions about building a legacy, while the other wants documents prepared, signed and executed, minus any big picture conversations.

A simple solution would be for each spouse to identify an attorney at the same firm who matches their personal style.

Another reason for using different estate planning attorneys is if one wants to use a “floating spouse” provision, which can cause some feelings to arise. This is a provision defining a “spouse” as the person you are married to at the time of death. If there’s a divorce and the prior spouse would have had a vested interest in property, the floating spouse provision affords another layer of protection to keep assets to the spouse at the time of death.

There are non-divorce related reasons for the floating spouse provision. If an irrevocable trust is created to benefit the spouse, the ability to make changes to the trust can be challenging, time consuming and costly. With a floating spouse provision, the prior spouse is removed as a beneficiary and the new spouse could be easily substituted. In this case, independent counsel is advised, as interests are considered legally adverse.

Estate planning is a personal process and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If any part of the estate creates adverse interests, joint representation may not work. However, when the estate is relatively simple and the couple’s goals are the same, having a spouse by your side during the planning procress could give each of you the incentive to take care of this very important task. Speak with an experienced  estate planning attorney to evaluate what's best for your situation.

Reference: The Street (Nov. 30, 2022) “Should My Spouse and I Hire the Same Estate Lawyer?”

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