The estate planning process can be intimidating, especially to someone who has never talked to a lawyer before. For a lot of people, talking to an estate planning attorney is the first experience they’ve had with the legal process. Because of this, a lot of people might not know many of the basic concepts that your attorney might take for granted.
If you’re beginning the estate planning process, it’s a good idea to take a little time to familiarize yourself with some essential legal ideas. Also, it’s often easy for your lawyer to forget how new to the legal world you are. So, if you come across an idea or term you’re not familiar with, be sure to ask for clarification.
Criminal and Civil Law
One of the most important issues everyone needs to understand is the difference between civil and criminal law. Estate planning almost always involves civil law, and criminal issues, though possible, are rarely dealt with by estate planning attorneys.
Criminal law involves people who are suspected or accused of having committed crimes. In criminal law, representatives of the state (prosecutors and police) charge people with crimes. Those accused of crimes have the right to defend themselves, but if convicted, face fines, probation, or jail.
Civil law does not involve people accused of crimes. Even if you sue someone in civil law, or get sued, the person who loses the lawsuit won’t face criminal penalties.
Speaking of lawsuits, beginning the estate planning process will probably not result in you suing someone or getting sued by someone. Lawsuits occur when one person accuses another person of doing something wrong. Estate planning usually doesn’t involve lawsuits, though some situations might involve them.
Courtrooms and Legalities
Another important idea to understand before you begin estate planning is the idea that much of what you and your attorney will do will not involve a court or going to a courthouse.
The estate planning process is, at its heart, all about making choices about different decisions that you are entitled to make. Once you make your choice, it will be your attorney’s job to make sure you do so in a way that a court might later recognize and be able to enforce.
While you and your lawyer will make sure that you make your choices in the right way, this usually doesn’t require you to ask a court’s permission to make a choice. However, some estate planning situations or choices might require you to go to court, file a lawsuit, or even pursue, or face, criminal charges. As with any legal issue, you should always ask your attorney for advice whenever you face such a situation.