What Is the Purpose of an Estate Plan?

No one wants to think about becoming seriously ill or dying, but scrambling to get an estate plan and healthcare documents done while in the hospital or nursing home is a bad alternative, says a recent article titled “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Not having an estate plan in place can create enormous costs for the estate, including taxes, and delay the transfer of assets to heirs.

If you would like to avoid the cost, stress and possibility of your spouse or children having to go to court to get all of this done while you are incapacitated, it is time to have an estate plan created. Here are the basics:

A Will, a Living Will, Power of Attorney and a Beneficiary Check-Up. People think of a will when they think of an estate plan, but that’s only part of the plan. The will gives instructions for what you want to happen to assets, who will be in charge of your estate—the executor—and who will be in charge of any minor children—the guardian. No will? This is known as dying intestate, and probate courts will make all of these decisions for you, based on state law.

However, a will is not enough. Beneficiary designations determine who receives assets from certain types of property. This includes life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts, annuities, and any account that provides the opportunity to name a beneficiary. These instructions supersede the will, so make sure that they are up to date. If you fail to name a beneficiary, then the asset is considered part of your estate. If you fail to update your beneficiaries, then the person you may have wanted to receive the assets forty years ago will receive it.

Some banks and brokerage accounts may have an option of a Transfer on Death (TOD) agreement. This allows you to plan out asset distribution outside of the will, speeding the distribution of assets.

A Living Will or Advance Directive is used to communicate in advance what you would want to happen if you are alive but unable to make decisions for yourself. It names an agent to make serious medical decisions on your behalf, like being kept on life support or having surgery. Not having the right to make medical decisions for a loved one requires petitioning the court.

Financial Power of Attorney names an attorney in fact to manage finances, paying bills and overseeing investments. Without a POA, your family can’t take action on your financial matters, like paying bills, overseeing the maintenance of your home, etc. If the court appoints a non-family member to manage this task, the family may see the estate evaporate.

Creating a trust is part of most people’s estate plan. A trust is a means of leaving assets for a minor child, or someone who cannot be trusted to manage money. The trust is a legal entity that inherits money when you pass, and a trustee, who you name in the trust documents, manages everything, according to the terms of the trust.

Today’s estate plan needs to include digital assets. You need to give someone legal authority to manage social media accounts, websites, email and any other digital property you own.

The time to create an estate plan, or review and update an existing estate plan, is now. COVID has awakened many people to the inevitability of severe illness and death. Planning for the future today protects the ones you love tomorrow.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 21, 2021) “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan”

Retirement and Estate Planning Work Better Together

So, you’ve been married for a while, and you’re both comfortable with which bank accounts, credit cards and investment accounts are shared and which other accounts are kept separate. However, where the big picture is concerned—like coordinating retirement plans, health coverage and tax planning—you both need to take an active role in planning and making good decisions. In fact, says the article “Couples and Money: When Together is Better” from Kiplinger, the decisions that work well for you as individuals may not be so hot, when they are looked at from a couple’s perspective.

Here’s an example. A man is working at a firm that doesn’t offer a match for his 401(k) contributions, but his wife’s employer does. Instead of contributing to his 401(k) plan, he uses the money to pay off a HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit) that the couple had taken together to do some upgrades on their home. She contributes enough to her own 401(k) to get her company’s match every year. The goal is to cut their debt and save as much as possible. This worked at that time in the couple’s life.

Ten years later, they are both maxing out their 401(k) savings and working to build short-term savings to send kids to college through the use of 529 College Savings Accounts.

Retirement accounts can never be jointly owned. However, some couples fall into a trap of saving for themselves without considering the overall household. Dual earning couples often run into trouble, when one has a workplace plan and the other does not. The spouse with the workplace plan isn’t thinking that he or she needs to save enough for two people to retire. With two incomes, you might think that both are making retirement a savings priority, but without a 401(k) plan, it’s possible that only one person is saving and only saving enough for themselves.

A general recommendation is that both members of a couple save between 10-15% of their household earnings, rather than their personal earnings, in retirement accounts. Couples should review their respective retirement plans together and plan together. If one has a more generous match, access to a Roth option, or better investment opportunities, they should consider how much the person with the better plan should save.

Couples also need to examine other financial aspects of their lives. Coordinating retirement benefits, reviewing life insurance policies, planning a coordinated strategy for taking Social Security and making informed choices about health care coverage can make a big difference in the family’s financial well-being.

Equally important: making sure that an estate plan is in place. That includes a will that names a guardian for any minor children, a health care proxy and a financial power of attorney. Depending upon the family’s circumstances, that may include trusts or other wealth transfer strategies.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 23, 2019) “Couples and Money: When Together is Better”