While nobody wants to think about death or disability, establishing an estate plan is one of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones. Proper estate planning not only puts you in charge of your finances, it can also spare your loved ones of the expense, delay and frustration associated with managing your affairs when you pass away or become disabled.
Providing for Incapacity
If you become incapacitated, you won’t be able to manage your own financial affairs. Many are under the mistaken impression that one’s spouse or adult children can automatically take over for them if they become incapacitated. The truth is that in order for others to be able to manage your finances, they must petition a court to declare you legally incompetent. This process can be lengthy, costly and stressful. Even if the court appoints the person you would have chosen, the individual may have to come back to the court every year and show how he or she is spending and investing each and every penny.
If you want your family to be able to immediately take over for you, it’s essential that you work with an attorney to create the proper legal documents to designate a person, or persons, that you trust so they will have the authority to withdraw money from your accounts, pay bills, take distributions from your IRAs, sell stocks, and refinance your home. Many people mistakenly think that a simple will can effectively protect you in the event that you become incapacitated, but the truth is that a will does not take effect until you die.
In addition to planning for the financial aspect of your affairs during incapacity, it’s critical that you establish a plan for your medical care. The law allows you to appoint someone you trust – for example, a family member or close friend to make decisions on your behalf about medical treatment options if you lose the ability to decide for yourself. You can do this by using a durable power of attorney for health care where you designate the person to make such decisions on your behalf. In addition to a power of attorney for health care, you should also have a living will which informs others of your preferred medical treatments such as the use of extraordinary measures should you become permanently unconscious or terminally ill.
If you leave your estate to your loved ones using a will, everything you own will pass through probate. The process is expensive, time-consuming and open to the public. The probate court is in control of the process until the estate has been settled and distributed. During this process, it is not unusual for the probate courts to freeze assets for weeks or even months while trying to determine the proper disposition of the estate, making it difficult for your family to pay for living expenses. If you are married and have children, you want to make certain that your surviving family has immediate access to cash to pay for living expenses while your estate is being settled. With proper planning, your assets can pass on to your loved ones without undergoing probate, in a manner that is quick, inexpensive and private.
Providing for Minor Children
It is important that your estate plan address issues regarding the upbringing of your children. If your children are young, you may want to consider implementing a plan that will allow your surviving spouse to devote more attention to your children, without the burden of work obligations. You may also want to provide for special counseling and resources for your spouse, if you believe they lack the experience or ability to handle financial and legal matters. You should also discuss with your attorney the possibility of both you and your spouse dying simultaneously, or within a short duration of time. A contingency plan should include a list of persons you’d like to manage your assets and name a guardian you’d like to nominate to raise your children in your absence. The person, or trustee, in charge of the finances need not be the same person as the guardian. In fact, in many situations, you may want to purposely designate different persons to maintain a system of checks and balances.
You should give careful thought to your choice of guardian, ensuring that he or she shares the values you want instilled in your children. You will also want to give consideration to the age and financial condition of a potential guardian. Some guardians may lack child-rearing skills you feel are necessary. If you fail to plan, the decision as to who will manage your finances and raise your children will be left to a court of law.
Another issue to consider during the planning process is whether you’d like your beneficiaries to receive your assets directly, or to have the assets placed in trust and distributed subject to conditions and circumstances such as age, need and even incentives based on behavior and education. All too often, children receive substantial assets before they are mature enough to handle them in a prudent manner.
Planning for Death Taxes
The IRS will want to review your estate at death to ensure you don’t owe them that one final tax: the federal estate tax. Whether there will be any tax owed depends on the size of your estate and how your estate plan is structured. Many states have their own separate estate and inheritance taxes that you need to be aware of. There are many effective strategies that can be implemented to reduce or eliminate death taxes, but you must start the planning process early in order to properly implement many of these strategies.
Charitable Bequests – Planned Giving
Do you want to benefit a charitable organization or cause? Your estate plan can provide support for such organizations in a variety of ways, either during your lifetime or at your death. Depending on how your planned giving is set up, it may also allow you to receive a stream of income for life, earn higher investment yield, or reduce your capital gains or estate taxes.
A well-crafted estate plan should provide for your loved ones in an effective and efficient manner by avoiding guardianship during your lifetime, probate at death, estate taxes and unnecessary delays. You should consult a qualified estate planning attorney to review your family and financial situation, your goals and explain the various options available to you. Once your estate plan is in place, you will have peace of mind knowing that you have provided for yourself and your family.
Estate Planning FAQs
- What is estate planning?
- Why is it important to establish an estate plan?
- What does my estate include?
- How do I name a guardian for my children?
- What estate planning documents should I have?
Q: What is estate planning?
When someone passes away, his or her property must somehow pass to another person. In the United States, any competent adult has the right to choose the manner in which his or her assets are distributed after his or her passing. (The main exception to this general rule involves what is called a spousal right of election which disallows the complete disinheritance of a spouse in most states.) A proper estate plan also involves strategies to minimize potential estate taxes and settlement costs as well as to coordinate what would happen with your home, your investments, your business, your life insurance, your employee benefits (such as a 401K plan), and other property in the event of death or disability. On the personal side, a good estate plan should include directions to carry out your wishes regarding health care matters, so that if you ever are unable to give the directions yourself, someone you know and trust can do that for you.
Q: Why is it important to establish an estate plan?
Sadly, many individuals don’t engage in formal estate planning because they don’t think that they have “a lot of assets” or mistakenly believe that their assets will be automatically shared among their children upon their passing. If you don’t make proper legal arrangements for the management of your assets and affairs after your passing, the state’s intestacy laws will take over upon your death or incapacity. This often results in the wrong people getting your assets as well as higher estate taxes.
If you pass away without establishing an estate plan, your estate would undergo probate, a public, court-supervised proceeding. Probate can be expensive and tie up the assets of the deceased for a prolonged period before beneficiaries can receive them. Even worse, your failure to outline your intentions through proper estate planning can tear apart your family as each person maneuvers to be appointed with the authority to manage your affairs. Further, it is not unusual for bitter family feuds to ensue over modest sums of money or a family heirloom.
Q: What does my estate include?
Your estate is simply everything that you own, anywhere in the world, including:
- Your home or any other real estate that you own
- Your business
- Your share of any joint accounts
- The full value of your retirement accounts
- Any life insurance policies that you own
- Any property owned by a trust, over which you have a significant control
Q: How do I name a guardian for my children?
If you have children under the age of eighteen, you should designate a person or persons to be appointed guardian(s) over their person and property. Of course, if a surviving parent lives with the minor children (and has custody over them) he or she automatically continues to remain their sole guardian. This is true despite the fact that others may be named as the guardian in your estate planning documents. You should name at least one alternate guardian in case the primary guardian cannot serve or is not appointed by the court.
Q: What estate planning documents should I have?
A comprehensive estate plan should include the following documents, prepared by an attorney based on in-depth counseling which takes into account your particular family and financial situation:
A Living Trust can be used to hold legal title to and provide a mechanism to manage your property. You (and your spouse) are the Trustee(s) and beneficiaries of your trust during your lifetime. You also designate successor Trustees to carry out your instructions in case of death or incapacity. Unlike a will, a trust usually becomes effective immediately after incapacity or death. Your Living Trust is “revocable” which allows you to make changes and even to terminate it. One of the great benefits of a properly funded Living Trust is the fact that it will avoid or minimize the expense, delays and publicity associated with probate.
If you have a Living Trust-based estate plan, you also need a pour-over will. For those with minor children, the nomination of a guardian must be set forth in a will. The other major function of a pour-over will is that it allows the executor to transfer any assets owned by the decedent into the decedent’s trust so that they are distributed according to its terms.
A Will, also referred to as a Last Will and Testament, is primarily designed to transfer your assets according to your wishes. A Will also typically names someone to be your Executor, who is the person you designate to carry out your instructions. If you have minor children, you should also name a Guardian as well as alternate Guardians in case your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve. A Will only becomes effective upon your death, and after it is admitted by a probate court.
A Durable Power of Attorney for Property allows you to carry on your financial affairs in the event that you become disabled. Unless you have a properly drafted power of attorney, it may be necessary to apply to a court to have a guardian or conservator appointed to make decisions for you during a period of incapacitation. This guardianship process is time-consuming, expensive, emotionally draining and often costs thousands of dollars.
There are generally two types of durable powers of attorney: a present durable power of attorney in which the power is immediately transferred to your agent (also known as your attorney in fact); and a springing or future durable power of attorney that only comes into effect upon your subsequent disability as determined by your doctor. Anyone can be designated, most commonly your spouse or domestic partner, a trusted family member, or friend. Appointing a power of attorney assures that your wishes are carried out exactly as you want them, allows you to decide who will make decisions for you, and is effective immediately upon subsequent disability.
The law allows you to appoint someone you trust to decide about medical treatment options if you lose the ability to decide for yourself. You can do this by using a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care or Health Care Proxy where you designate the person or persons to make such decisions on your behalf. You can allow your health care agent to decide about all health care or only about certain treatments. You may also give your agent instructions that he or she has to follow. Your agent can then ensure that health care professionals follow your wishes. Hospitals, doctors and other health care providers must follow your agent’s decisions as if they were your own.
A Living Will informs others of your preferred medical treatment should you become permanently unconscious, terminally ill, or otherwise unable to make or communicate decisions regarding treatment. In conjunction with other estate planning tools, it can bring peace of mind and security while avoiding unnecessary expense and delay in the event of future incapacity.
Some medical providers have refused to release information, even to spouses and adult children authorized by durable medical powers of attorney, on the grounds that the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, prohibits such releases. In addition to the above documents, you should also sign a HIPAA authorization form that allows the release of medical information to your agents, your successor trustees, your family and other people whom you designate.