Why Do You Need an Estate Plan?

Everyone benefits from having an estate plan. If you own property, investments, or anything of value, you need an estate plan. If you have family or dependents, you need an estate plan. Estate planning directs how assets are directed, if you become incapacitated or when you die.

The checklist for creating an estate plan includes a will, powers of attorney and assigning beneficiary account designations. Using an estate planning lawyer ensures that your plan meets all legal requirements, according to the article “What is estate planning? A strategy to safeguard your family and your finances, and ensure your plans for them get carried out as you wish” from Business Insider.

In this usage, “estate” means the things you own. An estate plan inventories everything, including your home, cars, bank accounts, life insurance policies, retirement accounts and personal possessions. It outlines in writing exactly what you want to happen with your property. It also directs who you want to handle your affairs during life and after death and who you want to inherit your assets.

Why does estate planning matter? If you die without a will, your assets may get tied up in probate, where the court oversees the distribution of your estate according to your state’s laws. Without a will and the tax planning part of estate planning, your estate may shrink and your heirs receive less.

The will is just the start of a comprehensive estate plan. It details where you want your assets to go and names an executor who will oversee your estate. If you have minor children, the will is where you name a guardian to raise your children.

A durable power of attorney designates a person to act on your behalf for legal and financial matters if you become incapacitated. Without it, family members will not be able to file tax returns, collect government benefits, manage investments and handle any financial transactions. They’ll need to go to court and have a judge appoint someone to manage these and other tasks. It’s far easier and less expensive to have this document in place than to get the courts involved.

A health care power of attorney is your opportunity to name someone to make medical decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated. This includes choosing doctors, deciding what tests to run and whether you want to have surgery or certain treatments.

You’ll want a living will to ensure your wishes for end-of-life decisions are followed. A living will also relieves your loved one of the enormous burden of determining “what Mom would have wanted” if you become terminally ill, enter the late stages of dementia, are seriously injured, in a coma, or near the end of your life. What extreme measures do you want to be taken to prolong your life? What would you not want to be done to maintain your life?

Beneficiary designations are the forms to be completed when you open a retirement account or purchase a life insurance policy. Beneficiary designations override any instructions for these accounts set out in your will, so its very important to review and update them regularly.

Trusts are used to take assets out of your probate estate. A trust is created by an estate planning attorney and upon death, assets are distributed according to the directions of the trust. If you own a lot of assets, trusts are a useful tool to avoid estate and inheritance taxes.

Digital asset protection trusts are a way to legally transfer domain names, social media accounts and other digital assets to heirs upon your death. Emails, text messages, cloud-based storage accounts, websites and social media accounts all need to be inventoried and a plan needs to be in place to protect these assets.

Reference: Business Insider (Sep. 22, 2022) “What is estate planning? A strategy to safeguard your family and your finances, and ensure your plans for them get carried out as you wish”

What Is Considered an Asset in an Estate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if a particular asset will be included in an estate, from life insurance and real estate to employment contracts and Health Savings Accounts. The answer is explored in the aptly-titled article, “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?” from Kiplinger.

When you die, your estate is defined in different ways for different planning purposes. You have a gross estate for federal estate taxes. However, there’s also the probate estate. You may also be thinking of whether an asset is part of your estate to be passed onto heirs. It depends on which part of your estate you’re focusing on.

Let’s start with life insurance. You’ve purchased a policy for $500,000, with your son as the designated beneficiary. If you own the policy, the entire $500,000 death benefit will be included in your gross estate for federal estate tax purposes. If your estate is big enough ($12.06 million in 2022), the entire death benefit above the exemption is subject to a 40% federal estate tax.

However, if you want to know if the policy will be included in your probate estate, the answer is no. Proceeds from life insurance policies are not subject to probate, since the death benefit passes by contract directly to the beneficiaries.

Next, is the policy an estate asset available for heirs, creditors, taxing authorities, etc.? The answer is a little less clear. Since your son was named the designated beneficiary, your estate can’t use the proceeds to fulfill bequests made to others through your will. Even if you disowned your son since naming him on the policy and changed your will to pass your estate to other children, the life insurance policy is a contract. Therefore, the money is going to your son, unless you change this while you are still living.

However, there’s a little wrinkle here. Can the proceeds of the life insurance policy be diverted to pay creditors, taxes, or other estate obligations? Here the answer is, it depends. An example is if your son receives the money from the insurance company but your will directs that his share of the probate estate be reduced to reflect his share of costs associated with probate. If the estate doesn’t have enough assets to cover the cost of probate, he may need to tap the proceeds to pay his share.

Another aspect of figuring out what’s included in your estate depends upon where you live. In community property states—Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin—assets are treated differently for estate tax purposes than in states with what’s known as “common law” for married couples. Also, in most states, real estate owned on a fee simple basis is simply transferred on death through the probate estate, while in other states, an alternative exists where a Transfer on Death (TOD) deed is used.

This legal jargon may be confusing, but it’s important to know, because if property is in your probate estate, expenses may vary from 2% to 6%, versus assets outside of probate, which have no expenses.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state of residence to know what assets are included in your federal estate, what are part of your probate estate and what taxes will be levied on your estate from the state or federal governments and don’t forget, some states have inheritance taxes your heirs will need to pay.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 13, 2021) “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?”