Thinking Ahead: Estate Planning on a budget with help from Cornell law school


Among the many useful things that aren’t taught in school, estate planning is one of those things. And it can be expensive to have it done right. Creating a will and a plan for what happens to literally everything you own after you pass is time-consuming and takes a degree of specific knowledge. But, it’s something that we should all be thinking about in order to clarify our wishes and plan for the eventual.

Lucky for us, residents of Tompkins County, there is a limited service available through the Cornell University Law School that can help residents with limited incomes go through the estate planning process relatively painlessly, and for free! In order to give law students hands-on practice in this field, an Estate Planning Practicum is held every spring semester. Residents in need of estate planning services can sign up to receive free consultation and a basic estate plan from law students, supervised by licensed professional lawyers specializing in estate planning.

There are requirements for those who can apply for the practicum. Because the service is free of charge, clients must meet income eligibility guidelines of less than $25,000 annually for a single person, and less than $50,000 annually for a couple. The practicum is designed this way to help target populations that are underserved, said Jill Miller, an adjunct professor in the Cornell University Law School who runs the practicum and specializes in creating estate plans.

“The students are really enthusiastic to give back to the community,” Miller said. “And the clients have been appreciative too.”

Once a client’s application is chosen and they are placed with one of the students, clients must sign a written commitment agreeing to follow through with appointments, or give 24-hour notice if they will have to miss one. Since this is a vital learning experience for the students, the commitment helps give assurances that they will be able to complete the estate plan, with the client’s cooperation. Good estate plans can include choosing a health care agent, naming a power of attorney, as well as dictating where your wealth and assets will go when you die.

Client’s that are chosen for the practicum will fill out a profile form for the law students to give them a better understanding of what their estate looks like, as far as their family and financial background. Interested parties can find more information by speaking with the clinic administrator, Susan Tosto, who can be reached at or (607) 254-5186.

“In law school, a lot of it is just theoretical, you know, you read the casebook, talk about the law, the analysis, who’s right and who’s wrong and why or why not,” Miller said of why the clinics are important. “But in the clinic, instead of just reading about drafting wills and property, it actually comes alive.”

Beyond the drafting of the estate plan for practice, the experience also helps law students learn more about interacting with clients through setting up meetings and communicating about what they want and need.

The cost of estate planning depends on where you live and what you want, Miller said. In New York City, estate planning can be very expensive. But the cost isn’t just in money. Putting together an estate plan takes time, something that not everyone has to spend.

“It’s an investment of the client, and a responsibility of the client,” Miller said. “They have to carefully think about what they want and who they should choose for different roles. Executor of their will, or as their health care agent, or their agent if they don’t have an attorney, the trusting of their kids, the guarding of their kids. They have to understand and think about their assets and the relationship of who should be in charge of what, and talk about their estate lawyer.”

Creating a healthy estate plan is not unlike keeping yourself healthy. Just like getting a thorough annual physical, Miller said that putting in the time to create a thorough estate plan is worth the time and effort. You may think your estate situation is simple, but in Miller’s experience, it is almost never as simple as people like to think.

“People think that a simple estate plan only has to do with their wealth,” Miller said. “That is the furthest thing from the truth. Their wealth, as a type of asset, is a factor that makes up an estate plan complicated or simple. But I will tell you, the family members and their needs will drive the complexity of the plan.”

There are dozens of factors that can make creating an estate plan more complicated: family members with disabilities or having a disability yourself, more than one marriage, owning a business, and so much more.

For those who can’t participate in the practicum, there are other helpful resources out of the law school, including a seminar open to the public all about the basics of estate planning. Anybody that attends the seminar will receive a free living will and health care proxy form.


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