What is Estate Planning?
Estate planning ensures you responsibly leave money to your heirs, while also ensuring your end-of-life wishes are respected. Doing this helps prevent family infighting, protects your privacy and saves money on taxes and attorney fees.
Most estate plans are set up with the help of an attorney to make sure they are clear and concise so they can’t be misinterpreted.
Some people think estate planning is only for the elderly but if you have people relying on you and your income, you should have an estate plan in place.
If something tragic were to happen to you today – for instance, you were in a bad car accident that left you in a coma or on life support – who would care for your children? You home? Would anyone know how to handle your affairs?
If matters got worse and you passed away, would your family know how to distribute your assets? Or would they be left with not only grief and stress, but the financial burden of estate taxes and probate?
The purpose of estate planning is to prepare your wealth and assets for events such as these. You have an estate plan to document your last wishes and specify exactly who will guard them and act on them in your absence.
The benefits of an estate plan are endless. Here are just a few:
- Responsibly Leave Money
- Choose a Guardian for Minors
- Protect Special Needs Family Members
- Protect Family Privacy
- Lower Taxes
- Avoid Family Fights
- Avoid Probate
Regardless of what you’ve been told in the past, there’s not a certain monetary value you must have, or age you must be, in order to have an estate plan.
When you’re ready to legally specify your wishes and how you want them carried out, here are a few key steps in the estate planning process that you’ll go through:
Step #1: Choose an Advance Directive
Start by addressing all of your medical requests first. This will involve filling out forms like a living will, power of attorney, and caregiver agreement. These three documents combined are known as an Advanced Directive.
The person stated in your will is allowed to make end of life decisions, your power of attorney (whom you can appoint as a Medical Power of Attorney) can make medical decisions on your behalf, and the caregiver agreement states that the person named is paid to care for you when (and if) needed.
Step #2: Choose a Financial Agent
A Durable Power of Attorney is not the same as power of attorney. A Durable Power of Attorney is allowed to handle all financial transactions and responsibilities on your behalf. This person can be the same person you appoint as Power of Attorney or it can be someone else.
Step #3: Create an Inventory List
Compile a list of all assets and their value. This includes everything from real estate and vehicles to personal possessions and business entities. This should also include any life insurance policies.
Step #4: Name Beneficiaries
Name who will receive which asset after you pass away. You can also name charities you want some (or all) of your assets to go to as well.
Step #5: Complete Last Will and Testament and Living Trust
A will and trust help beneficiaries avoid the probate process and avoid fights within the family.
Step #6: Sign Documents
This sounds like an easy step, but it’s actually a very tedious process that must be done in accordance with your state’s execution laws. You usually need two witnesses that are not part of the estate plan and a notary to finalize the documents.
Step #7: Keep in a Safe Place
Once the estate plan is properly complete, store it in a safe place where beneficiaries or caregivers know where to find it. An ideal plan is to have your attorney keep the original file and provide copies to family members.
Last Will and Testament – This will identify who you want to receive each of your assets, the guardian of your children, and guardian of your estate.
Revocable living trust – Unlike a will, a trust allows you to disburse your property now and/or later.
Durable Power of Attorney – The purpose of a durable power of attorney is to plan for medical emergencies, cognitive decline later in life, or other situations where you're no longer capable of making decisions.
Beneficiary Designation – When you name a beneficiary for things like your retirement and life insurance, they often overpower a will in the eyes of the law.
Other documents to include in your estate planning:
- Life insurance policy
- Retirement accounts
- Birth certificates
- Stocks and bonds
- Real estate deeds
- Letter of intent
While you can do real estate planning on your own and save a little money, you’re also taking a huge risk. Not only can estate planning attorneys help with the preparation and process, but they can also update your plan as needed and assist in – and hopefully, avoid – probate court after your passing.
Estate planning is not an act to be taken lightly. One missing signature, one wrong word or phrase can completely change the intent of a will. When you’re ready to create an estate plan, hire an experienced attorney to help you through the process.