Estate Planning is all about making a plan in advance and naming whom you want to receive the things you own after you die. However, good estate planning is much more than that.
Virtually everyone has an estate. It is comprised of everything you own— your car, home, other real estate, checking and savings accounts, investments, life insurance, furniture, personal possessions. No matter how large or how modest, everyone has an estate and something in common—you can’t take it with you when you die.
When that happens—and it is a “when” and not an “if”—you probably want to control how those things are given to the people or organizations you care most about. To ensure your wishes are carried out, you need to provide instructions stating whom you want to receive something of yours, what you want them to receive, and when they are to receive it. You will, of course, want this to happen with the least amount paid in taxes, legal fees, and court costs.
An Estate Plan should include:
- Naming who you want to receive the things you own after you die – your valuables.
- Instructions for passing your values (religion, education, hard work for example) and not just your valuables.
- Instructions for your care if you become disabled before you die.
- Naming a guardian and an inheritance manager for minor children.
- Providing for family members with special needs without disrupting government benefits.
- Providing for loved ones who might be irresponsible with money or who may need future protection from creditors or divorce.
- Life insurance to provide for your family at your death, disability income insurance to replace your income if you cannot work due to illness or injury and long-term care insurance to help pay for your care in case of an extended illness or injury.
- Provisions for the transfer of your business at your retirement, disability, or death.
- Provisions to minimize taxes, court costs and unnecessary legal fees.
- An ongoing process such that your plan is reviewed and updated as your family and financial situations (and laws) change over your lifetime.
Estate planning is for everyone.
It is not just for “retired” people, although people do tend to think about it more as they get older. Unfortunately, we can’t successfully predict how long we will live, and illness and accidents happen to people of all ages.
Estate planning is not just for “the wealthy,” either, although people who have built some wealth do often think more about how to preserve it. Good estate planning often means more to families with modest assets, because they can afford to lose the least.
TOO MANY PEOPLE DON'T PLAN
Individuals put off estate planning because they think they don’t own enough, they’re not old enough, they’re busy, think they have plenty of time, they’re confused and don’t know who can help them, or they just don’t want to think it. Then, when something happens to them, their families have to pick up the pieces.
If you don’t have a plan, your state has one for you,
but you probably won’t like it.
- At disability: If your name is on the title of your assets and you can’t conduct business due to mental or physical incapacity, only a court appointee can sign for you. The court, not your family, will control how your assets are used to care for you through a conservatorship or guardianship (depending on the term used in your state). It can become expensive and time-consuming, it is open to the public, and it can be difficult to end even if you recover.
- At your death: If you die without an intentional estate plan, your assets will be distributed according to the probate laws in your state. In many states, if you are married and have children, your spouse and children will each receive a share. That means your spouse could receive only a fraction of your estate, which may not be enough to live on. If you have minor children, the court will control their inheritance. If both parents die (i.e., in a car accident), the court will appoint a guardian without knowing whom you would have chosen.
- Given the choice—and you do have the choice—wouldn’t you prefer these matters be handled privately by your family, not by the courts? Wouldn’t you prefer to keep control of who receives what and when? And, if you have young children, wouldn’t you prefer to have a say in who will raise them if you can’t? modest assets, because they can afford to lose the least.
AN ESTATE PLAN BEGINS WITH A WILL OR LIVING TRUST.
A will provide your instructions, but it does not avoid probate. Any assets titled in your name or directed by your will must go through your state’s probate process before they can be distributed to your heirs. (If you own property in other states, your family will probably face multiple probates, each one according to the laws in that state.) The process varies greatly from state to state, but it can become expensive with legal fees, executor fees, and court costs. It can also take anywhere from nine months to two years or longer. With rare exception, probate files are open to the public and excluded heirs are encouraged to come forward and seek a share of your estate. In short, the court system, not your family, controls the process.
Not everything you own will go through probate. Jointly-owned property and assets that let you name a beneficiary (for example, life insurance, IRAs, 401(k)s, annuities, etc.) are not controlled by your will and usually will transfer to the new owner or beneficiary without probate. But there are many problems with joint ownership, and avoidance of probate is not guaranteed. For example, if a valid beneficiary is not named, the assets will have to go through probate and will be distributed along with the rest of your estate. If you name a minor as a beneficiary, the court will probably insist on a guardianship until the child legally becomes an adult.
For these reasons, a revocable living trust is preferred by many families and professionals. It can avoid probate at death (including multiple probates if you own property in other states), prevent court control of assets at incapacity, bring all of your assets (even those with beneficiary designations) together into one plan, provide maximum privacy, is valid in every state, and can be changed by you at any time. It can also reflect your love and values to your family and future generations.
Unlike a will, a trust doesn’t have to die with you. Assets can stay in your trust, managed by the trustee you selected until your beneficiaries reach the age you want them to inherit. Your trust can continue longer to provide for a loved one with special needs, or to protect the assets from beneficiaries’ creditors, spouses, and irresponsible spending.
A living trust is more expensive initially than a will, but considering it can avoid court interference at incapacity and death, many people consider it to be a bargain.