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Expert Advice on Estate Planning for Homeowners: An Interivew with Sonja Friedman of Bullard & Friedman, LLC

By Sonja Friedman

Tell us a little bit about your company and the areas of law that you practice.

Bullard and Friedman, LLC is a Hilton Head Island law firm that practices in the following areas: representation of homeowner associations; real estate transactions, both residential and commercial; estate planning, including preparation of trusts, wills, and health care documents; probate; business formation; and some general litigation. Attorney Sonja N. Friedman has been practicing in South Carolina since 2001, and is also licensed in Connecticut and New York.

Is there something that most people don't know about estate planning that they should know?

Everyone, no matter how small their estate, should have a will and other estate planning documents. If not, the court makes the decision in accordance with the South Carolina statutes as to how property is passed. This may not match the wishes of the deceased. For example, a person may not desire to leave the estate equally to the children- under the statutes, this would not be the result.

What are some of the biggest reasons that estate planning is essential for homeowners?

Estate planning is especially important for homeowners. Generally, a person's home is the biggest asset he/she has. If no planning is done, the court could order the home be sold. The heirs, however, may want to hold onto the house, either to use as a vacation home or a primary home, or the heirs may want to hold onto the house until the market has appreciated. Without proper planning, the court makes the decisions.

Can you give a brief breakdown of the key steps in the estate planning process you go through with your clients?

The estate planning process is really fairly simple. First, a person makes a list of the assets he/she has. Once this is done, a proper vehicle can be determined. For example, if property is owned in more than one state, a trust may be appropriate. Without a trust, a probate proceeding would have to be established in each state where property is owned. This adds time and expense to the probate process. Second, a person then has to decide how the property is going to be disbursed- this includes both tangible personal property, real property and the residuary. The third step is to choose who the personal representative will be. Other considerations are choosing health care agents and other end-of-life decisions.

What is one of the challenges that homeowners face when they're creating an estate plan?

The biggest challenge that homeowners, or anyone else for that matter, face when they are creating an estate plan, is getting started. No one really wants to think about their mortality. Another big challenge, particularly in the Hilton Head area, is whether or not to sell the real property. Do the children want to keep the home for vacations? Will the children be able to pay for the upkeep of the home? What if the children cannot agree on what to do with the home?

What happens when someone wants to make changes to their estate plan?

An estate plan is a fluid process. Events occur in everyone's life that can alter a person's initial plan. Making changes to an estate plan is not difficult. For a will, a codicil can be done. For a trust, an amendment can be done.

What practical advice do you have for homeowners who have not given much thought to creating an estate plan?

The best advice that I can give to homeowners is to put some plan in place. The hardest part is making that initial call to an attorney. Once that happens people find that the process was not as arduous as they thought and they feel better that a plan has been established. A plan is not cast in stone and can always be changed when necessary.

What's the best way for people to contact you and your company?

Sonja N. Friedman of Bullard and Friedman, LLC can be contacted either by telephone: (843) 689-2525 or email at snf@bullardfriedman.com.

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