Back to Basics

In an effort to delay the ravages of aging, I have recently started taking tennis lessons. While I did play some tennis back in college, it has been over 30 years since I picked up a racquet, so I decided that I would start from the beginning and take lessons like I had never played before. In doing it this way, I can relearn all those basics that I have probably forgotten (or never learned)!

Coaches in every sport harp on “the basics”, whether it is football or baseball or golf. If the fundamentals aren’t there, you can’t continue to improve. Even Tiger Woods has a coach, as did Michael Jordan! You would think if anyone knew everything about their respective sports, it would be those two guys! 

In my real job as an Elder Law attorney, I frequently meet with older couples who still don’t have their basic estate planning in place! Here are people in their 80s who have dodged that detail, successfully I might add, until now. I am sure you see it too. People just do not like to dwell on their own mortality and I suppose they think that if they can ignore it long enough, it will go away.

In these meetings with clients who do not have any plans in place, I have learned some valuable lessons. The most important lesson I have learned is that most people do not understand the process of estate-planning. Movies, novels and word of mouth have given them incorrect information. They have a vague idea what a Will is designed to do, but beyond that, they are clueless. Our first meeting with prospective clients takes this into consideration. Some of our clients will even ask us “who will be present at the reading of my Will after I am gone?” While this makes for great movie drama, I am not aware of “will readings” ever taking place in Alabama. But this is a common misunderstanding people have.

The second lesson I have learned is that people are not interested in the tools you use to do the job, they just want what they want at a price they can live with.

If you hire a woodworker to build something for you, the woodworker doesn’t talk about the various saws, clamps, hammers, fasteners and whatever else is required. The customer isn’t interested in the tools he or she will be using. The customer just wants that chair or table or whatever it is to be finished the way they want.

Lawyers tend to focus on the various tools we use too. We talk too much about various types of trusts and provisions in Wills; in other words, the tools we use. Our role in this meeting is not to convince the prospect how smart we are, but to help the prospect articulate what they are trying to achieve. This is the first time many of these people have ever truly discussed their goals with an outsider. While it is tempting to get too deep to fast, we need to stick to the basics.  

The third lesson I have learned is that people play checkers and estate planning can be more like chess.

They might say “when we both die, we want the kids to split everything”. To which I will always reply “that is a great plan. Have you considered what would happen if either of your children predecease you?” The answer is usually “I haven’t thought of that”. I ask them about their son or daughter-in-law and whether they prefer them to get their deceased child’s share or would they prefer their grandchildren to receive it? Again, they haven’t thought that far in advance. If they want their grandchildren to receive the inheritance, then at what age would be appropriate and who will oversee their inheritance until the attain that age? Again, they haven’t thought that far out yet. And this is just a snippet.

So our goal is to help the client see beyond the horizon. Like a coach helping an athlete perform beyond his/her perceived ability, our goal is to help clients accomplish something that they might not know how to. Keeping the focus on the basics is fundamental in every sport and works in estate planning as well. If we can help you or your clients achieve their estate-planning goals, please give us a call. We do not charge a fee to meet with anyone.

William G. Nolan

Nolan Elder Law & Estate Planning LLC

200 Office Park Drive Suite 303


In accordance with Alabama Bar requirements, no representation is made that the quality of legal services is greater than the legal services performed by other lawyers. ARPC 7.2(e)