What are the Basics of a Successful Estate Plan?

Whether you have a whole lot of money or a little, an estate plan is an essential. It protects you and your loved ones, and can also minimize taxes, expenses, fees and the loss of your privacy. A solid estate plan is created by an experienced estate planning attorney who is familiar with the laws of your state, reports the recent article titled “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan” from Bankrate.com.

All good estate plans have three key elements: a will, power of attorney and an advance healthcare directive. Each serves a different purpose. Some estate plans also include trusts, but every situation is different. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create the right estate plan for you.

A Will. The will, also known as the last will and testament, is the foundation of all estate plans. It directs your assets to be distributed as you wish. Without an estate plan, the court decides who will receive your assets. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. It’s called dying intestate. Your heirs will be burdened with additional court costs, delays and the stress of not knowing what you might have wanted.

However, financial accounts and property aren’t the only valuable thing protected by your will. If you have a minor child or children, the will is used to name a guardian who will take care of them. It also names a conservator who will manage the child’s financial assets, until they are of legal age. The guardian and conservator may be the same person, or they might be two different people. If you opt to split the roles, be sure the two people work well together.

Power of Attorney. A power of attorney, or POA, is used to give another person legal authority to take care of financial and legal matters, while you are still living. If you are incapacitated, a POA gives someone else the ability to pay bills and manage your affairs. A medical POA gives another person the ability to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. The POA is completely customizable: you can use it to give someone else broad powers to do everything, or narrow powers so they are in charge of only one bank account, for instance. It is very important to have a detailed discussion with the person before you name them. It’s a big responsibility and you want to be certain they are comfortable carrying out all of the tasks.

The Advance Healthcare Directive. This document lays out in detail what you want to happen to you if you are not able to make decisions because of severe illness or injury. If you don’t want to be resuscitated after a heart attack, for instance, you would state that in your advance care directive. It includes a list of treatments you do and do not want. Your family will be able to use it as a guide to help them make difficult decisions regarding sustaining your life, managing pain and providing end-of-life care.

Trusts in Estate Planning. The three elements above form the base of an estate plan, but there are other tools used to achieve your goals. Depending on your circumstances, you will want to incorporate trusts, useful tools for transferring assets of all types. For example, when assets are placed in an irrevocable trust, they are no longer part of your estate, thereby minimizing your estate tax liability. Trusts are also used when parents wish to exert control over how and when money is distributed to children. If the parents should both die, a trust can prevent an entire inheritance coming into the hands of an 18-year-old who is legally old enough to inherit property, but likely not ready for the responsibility.

Trusts also transfer assets outside of the probate process, so they protect the family’s privacy. No one outside of the trustees know how much money is in the trust and how the money is being distributed. Trusts are not just for the very wealthy. They can help you protect assets from creditors, ex-spouses and litigious family members.

Reference: Bankrate.com (July 23, 2021) “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan”

Preparing for an Estate Planning Meeting

Preparing to meet with an estate planning attorney for the first time is an opportunity to get organized and think about your wishes for the future. If you meet with your accountant every year to prepare tax returns, this may be a familiar process. It’s a chance to step away from day-to-day activities and focus on your life, as described in a recent article “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney” from The National Law Journal.

Minor Children Need Guardians and Conservators. In most states, families with minor children need a last will to designate one or more guardians to raise the children in the event both parents die. A successor should be named in case the first named guardian is unable or unwilling to serve. Discuss your decision with the people you are naming; don’t leave this as a surprise. Choosing these people is a hard decision. However, don’t let it be a reason to delay creating your estate plan. It’s better that you name a guardian, rather than let the court make that decision.

Agents, Trustees, and Power of Attorney. With a Durable Power of Attorney, your assets can be managed by a named agent, if you become incapacitated. The person who manages your estate after death is the executor. They are named in your last will. If you have trusts, the documents that create the trust also name the trustees. It is possible for one person to act as a fiduciary for all of these roles, although the tasks can be divided.

Living Will and Patient Advocate Designation. If you are incapacitated, a Patient Advocate can make medical decisions on your behalf, including following the instructions of your Living Will.

Personal Property. Any items of personal property, whether their value is sentimental or monetary, should be specified in the will. A list of items and who you want to receive what, may spare your heirs from squabbles over your personal effects, large or small. If you own a business or real estate, they also need to be addressed in your will.

Charitable Donations. If you are charitably minded, your will is one way to make bequests and build a lasting legacy. Charitable donations can also be made to gain tax benefits for heirs.

Beneficiary Distributions. The beneficiary designation is the unsung hero of the estate plan. By managing beneficiary designations while you are living—updating beneficiary designations, assigning beneficiary designations to all accounts possible—you take assets out of your probate estate and smooth the asset distribution process. However, there are some wrinkles to consider.

Minor children may not receive assets until they become of age—18 in most cases. Do you want your children (or nieces or grandchildren) to receive an inheritance, while they are still in their teens? Proper estate planning includes trusts created, so a responsible adult can manage the trust on their behalf. Your trust can also be structured so the money may only be used for college expenses, or when the children reach certain ages.

Surviving Pets. You can plan for your pet’s care, if you pass away or become incapacitated before they die. Most states permit the creation of a pet trust, an enforceable means of providing assets to be used for the care and well-being of your pet.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with a list of the documents she will need to get started on your estate plan, but these are the major issues that you will be discussing at your first meeting.

Reference: The National Law Journal (Feb. 23, 2021) “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney”

Estate Planning Is For Everyone

Estate planning is something anyone who is 18 years old or older needs to think about, advises the article “Estate planning for every stage of life from the Independent Record. Estate planning includes much more than a person’s last will and testament. It protects you from incapacity, provides the legal right to allow others to talk to your doctors if you can’t and takes care of your minor children, if an unexpected tragedy occurs. Let’s look at all the ages and stages where estate planning is needed.

Parents of young adults should discuss estate planning with their children. While parents devote decades to helping their children become independent adults, sometimes life doesn’t go the way you expect. A college freshman is more concerned with acing a class, joining a club and the most recent trend on social media. However, a parent needs to think about what happens when the child is over 18 and has a medical emergency. Parents have no legal rights to medical information, medical decision making or finances, once a child becomes a legal adult. Hospitals may not release private information and doctors can’t talk with parents, even in an extreme situation. Young adults need to have a HIPAA release, a durable power of medical attorney and a power of attorney for their finances created.

New parents also need estate planning. While it may be hard to consider while adjusting to having a new baby in the house, what would happen to that baby if something unexpected were to affect both parents? The estate planning attorney will create a last will and testament, which is used to name a guardian for any minor children, in case both parents pass. This also includes decisions that need to be made about the child’s education, medical treatment and even their social life. You’ll need to name someone to be the child’s guardian, and to be sure that they will raise your child the same way that you would.

An estate plan includes naming a conservator, who is a person with control over a minor child’s finances. You’ll want to name a responsible person who is trustworthy and good with handling money. It is possible to name the same person as guardian and conservator. However, it may be wise to separate the responsibilities.

An estate plan also ensures that your children receive their inheritance, when you think they will be responsible enough to handle it. If a minor child’s parents die and there is no estate plan, the parent’s assets will be held by the court for the benefit of the child. Once the child turns 18, he or she will receive the entire amount in one lump sum. Few who are 18-years old are able to manage large sums of money. Estate planning helps you control how the money is distributed. This is also something to consider, when your children are the beneficiaries of any life insurance policies. An estate planning attorney can help you set up trusts, so the monies are distributed at the right time.

When people enter their ‘golden’ years—that is, they are almost retired—it is the time for estate plans to be reviewed. You may wish to name your children as power of attorney and medical power of attorney, rather than a sibling. It’s best to have people who will be younger than you for these roles as you age. This may also be the time to change how your wealth is distributed. Are your children old enough to be responsible with an inheritance? Do you want to create a legacy plan that includes charitable giving?

Lastly, update your estate plan any time there are changes in the family structure. Divorce, death, marriage or individuals with special needs all require a different approach to the basic estate plan. It’s a good idea to revisit an estate plan anytime there have been major changes in your relationships, to the law, or changes to your financial status.

Reference: Independent Record (March 1, 2020) “Estate planning for every stage of life