By: Daniel Weitz, CFP®, CFA
There are certain things that most of us, for one reason or another, tend to put off. Estate planning is usually one of them. Whether it be because we don’t want to think about our lives ending, we believe it’s too costly, or that it simply doesn’t seem necessary, we tend to leave this imperative task lingering on our to-do lists. In fact, only 51% of Americans have done any estate planning at all, 1 which means, essentially, half the population is taking a potentially detrimental risk when it comes to caring for their families and assets.
Regardless of how much or how little you have to your name, if you don’t create a plan, you are ultimately leaving your loved ones with a situation that can be a complete nightmare, especially when added on top of their grieving. Without medical directives, families are left to guess how to handle end-of-life care. Without a will, determining how to divide the assets is often left to impersonal judges. And unnecessary probate and taxes can quickly diminish the funds left behind.
We know that life is busy and it can be difficult enough to take care of day-to-day business, let alone the practical and emotional complexities of estate planning. However, while it may seem daunting, the fact of the matter is, the process of thinking through your estate plan does not need to be complicated or stressful. Plus, the peace of mind it provides is well worth the time and effort you put in. With that in mind, here are 5 basic steps to get you started on your estate plan.
1. Draft A Will
Everyone needs a will to spell out their wishes and name someone to handle their financial affairs. Each person’s will is unique and will include different requests, but a few standard essentials to include are:
- Guardianship: If you’re a parent of a young child, this can be one of the most important parts of your will. Be sure to name a legal guardian for your minor children so if you pass away before they are legal adults, they will be cared for by the person of your choice.
- Assets: In your will, you’ll define which heir gets what, including percentages of your savings, specific accounts, certain properties, cars, or other valuables and sentimental items.
- Real Property: Beyond assets, you may also have homes and buildings that you want to leave to specific people.
Once your will is drafted, it’s critical to keep it up to date. Review it at least every two to three years and whenever you experience a major life event, such as marriage, divorce, death, or birth.
2. Appoint Trustworthy People
The next decision to make is to choose who you’d like to take care of certain responsibilities in the event of your death. Some people opt to have one person take on the various roles, while others appoint multiple people to carry out the different tasks. Some states have stipulations on who can serve in these roles, but they are often family members.2 The primary roles are:
- Executor: This is the person who is legally responsible for carrying out your will. They will ensure that your assets are distributed to your heirs and that your valuable items are given to the people you intended.
- Primary Agent: A durable power of attorney is a document that gives someone the legal ability to take care of your financial affairs if you are unable to do so. This person, called the primary agent, should be someone who is financially savvy and organized. They will handle any bills or income received and will follow your instructions laid out in the Durable Power of Attorney.
- Healthcare Proxy: Similar to a primary agent’s job to make financial decisions on your behalf, a healthcare proxy is someone you appoint to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so. These wishes can be laid out ahead of time in a document called a Medical Power of Attorney.
Start a conversation with the people you trust most to handle your affairs, and let them know that you are including them in these official documents.
3. Consider Trust Funds
Depending on what you want to accomplish with your assets and the specific needs of your situation, you may want to look into setting up a trust fund for your heirs. Contrary to popular belief, these are not just for the very wealthy. Trusts can be a wise way to ensure that the legacy you’re leaving behind is protected. There are also significant tax benefits in choosing trust funds, as money in trusts bypasses probate.
You may consider setting up a living trust, also known as a revocable trust. In the event of your death, the trust ends and is distributed to designated beneficiaries, similar to that of a will, except that the process is quicker and the assets are not taxed. If you’d like to contribute some of your assets to a cause that is close to your heart, you may consider a Charitable Remainder Unitrust (CRUT). This not only aids a charity but also give you immediate tax breaks.3
Speak with a trust and estates attorney to help you determine which option is best for your situation.
4. Organize All Important Documents
It’s important to keep all of your estate planning documents safe and organized so they are accessible when they’re needed. Using one central location, gather all important documents, including:
- Tax returns from the past seven years
- Insurance policies
- 401(k) statements
- Bank account information
- Mortgage paperwork
- Loan documents
- Brokerage statements
- Social Security, health insurance, and Medicare cards
- Contact information for your financial advisor, doctors, lawyer, and accountant
Make sure your spouse or closest family member knows where to find this information.
5. Rely On Experts
Planning an estate does involve many intricate details and time-consuming tasks, but don’t let that prevent you from getting your affairs in order when a professional is available to help. While it is possible to create wills online nowadays, there are often complex nuances to estate laws, and regulations differ from state to state.
A trust and estates attorney can help you sort through some of the different options to help you create the best plan for you and your loved ones. You should also consider meeting with your financial advisor, as he or she is heavily involved in your financial life and can work with you to make a plan for your assets and can assist with connecting you to an estate lawyer.
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