What are Typical Estate Planning Documents?

For many people, eight documents form the foundation of an estate plan. It’s not that difficult a project as it seems, explains the article “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate” from msn.com. When you’ve completed your estate plan, you’ll also gain the peace of mind of knowing that you’ve done what was needed to protect your family. It’s well worth the effort.

Last will and testament. This is the basic document that gives you the ability to tell your family what you want to happen with your assets. It is used to name an executor—a person who will be in charge of managing your estate. Your will is also where you name a guardian who will be in charge of raising minor children. You can use the will to convey funeral instructions, but you may want to do that in a separate document, in case your will isn’t found right away. Your estate planning attorney will help you figure out the best way to handle that.

What happens if you don’t have a will? In that case, a probate court will determine who will be your executor. It might be a spouse, a grown child, or someone you don’t know or would not want to handle your estate. It’s best to have a will and select your executor yourself. When your estate goes through probate, all of the information in your will becomes part of the public record, so don’t put anything in your will, like passwords or account numbers.

Revocable living trust. Trusts are used to pass assets and property without going through probate. Your estate planning attorney will help create the trust and you’ll decide who will be in charge of it upon your death. You can be the trustee while you are living, but then you lose any estate tax benefits. If you have substantial property or wealth, trusts are a good tool to control assets and save on estate taxes.

Beneficiary designations. Any time you purchase a new insurance policy or a retirement plan, you are asked to name a beneficiary. If your first job came with a retirement plan, you likely also named a beneficiary for that plan. These designations allow the assets to pass directly to the beneficiary upon your death. They aren’t included in your will and they don’t go through probate. The biggest problem with beneficiary designations? Neglecting to update them through the many changes in life. Review and update your beneficiary designations on a regular basis.

Durable power of attorney. This document allows you to name the person to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury. They can manage your legal and financial affairs. Here’s an important point: if you become incapacitated, you cannot assign this role to someone. It needs to be done when you are legally competent.

Health care power of attorney and living will. The health care power of attorney lets someone else make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are too sick to do so yourself. The living will gives you the opportunity to explain what kind of care you do or do not want if you are close to death. If the idea of staying alive on a heart machine makes you unhappy, for instance, you can document your wishes, so loved ones don’t have to wonder what you want.

Digital assets. Much of our lives are lived online, and we have assets that won’t be found in a search of the attic or basement. Each online platform that you use may have a directive process, where you can clearly state who you want to have access to your digital assets and what you would like to have happen to them upon your death.

A letter of intent. Writing a letter of intent is a way to convey your wishes to loved ones for what you’d like to happen after you die. It may not be legally enforceable, like a will or a trust, but your loved ones will appreciate knowing what you want for funeral planning or a memorial service.

List of important documents. Sparing your family a post-mortem scavenger hunt is a gift to the living. Make a list of documents and make sure they know where important documents can be found. Include a list of routine bills, the professionals you rely on, including contact information and account numbers. Some families use a briefcase to store the important papers, but a fireproof and waterproof safe is more secure.

Reference: msn.com (June 19, 2021) “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate”

Does a Prenup Make Sense?

Take the time to think about your financial plans before you get married to help set you on the right path. chase.com’s recent article entitled “How to prepare your finances for marriage” explains that a prenuptial agreement sets out each prospective spouse’s rights and responsibilities, if one spouse dies or the couple gets divorced.

This is a guide for dividing and distributing assets. A prenuptial agreement can also be a valuable tool for planning since it will take priority over presumptions about what’s deemed community property, separate property, and marital property. A prenup can also prevent one spouse from being responsible for premarital debts of the other in the event of death or divorce.

A prenup is used frequently when one spouse or one spouse’s family is significantly wealthier than the other; or when one family owns a business and wants to make sure only family members can own and manage it.

Negotiate a prenuptial agreement early. If you know that you want to have your fiancé to sign a prenuptial agreement, do it ASAP because some courts have found a prenup invalid because it was entered into under duress and signed and negotiated right before the wedding.

Examine employee benefits. Make certain that you understand know how marriage will impact your employee benefits, especially if you and your spouse are working. See what would be less expensive, and if one offers significantly better coverage. Marriage almost always is a life event that permits you to modify your benefits elections outside of annual open enrollment.

Review beneficiary designations and estate planning documents. It’s common for young people prior to marriage to name their parents or siblings as beneficiary of accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, life insurance and transfer on death (TOD) and payable on death (POD) accounts. Review these designations and accounts and, if needed, change your beneficiary to your new spouse after the wedding. You should also be sure you to update your estate planning documents, including wills, health care designations, powers of attorneys and others, to reflect your new situation.

Communication is critical. Start your marriage with strong communication to help you better face future challenges together.

Reference: chase.com (May 25, 2021) “How to prepare your finances for marriage”

What are Top ‘To-Dos’ in Estate Planning?

Spotlight News’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning To-Dos” says that with the potential for substantial changes to estate and gift tax rules under the Biden administration, this may be an opportune time to create or review our estate plan. If you are not sure where to begin, look at these to-dos for an estate plan.

See an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your plans. The biggest estate planning mistake is having no plan whatsoever. The top triggers for estate planning conversations can be life-altering events, such as a car accident or health crisis. If you already have a plan in place, visit your estate planning attorney and keep it up to date with the changes in your life.

Draft financial and healthcare powers of attorney. Estate plans contain multiple pieces that may overlap, including long-term care plans and powers of attorney. These say who has decision-making power in the event of a medical emergency.

Draft a healthcare directive. Living wills and other advance directives are written to provide legal instructions describing your preferences for medical care, if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Advance care planning is a process that includes quality of life decisions and palliative and hospice care.

Make a will. A will is one of the foundational aspects of estate planning, However, this is frequently the only thing people do when estate planning. A huge misconception about estate planning is that a will can oversee the distribution of all assets. A will is a necessity, but you should think about estate plans holistically—as more than just a will. For example, a modern aspect of financial planning that can be overlooked in wills and estate plans is digital assets.  It is also recommended that you ask an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a trust fits into your circumstances, and to help you with the other parts of a complete estate plan.

Review beneficiary designations. Retirement plans, life insurance, pensions and annuities are independent of the will and require beneficiary designations. One of the biggest estate planning mistakes is having outdated beneficiary designations, which only supports the need to review estate plans and designated beneficiaries with an experienced estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

Reference: Spotlight News (May 19, 2021) “Estate Planning To-Dos”

Should You Get Medical Power of Attorney?

The pandemic has created awareness that being suddenly incapacitated by an illness or injury is no longer a hypothetical. The last year has reminded us that health is a fragile gift, regardless of age or any medical conditions, explains the article “Now Is the Time to Protect Your Health Care Decision Making Rights” from Kiplinger. Along with this awareness, comes an understanding that having control over our medical decisions is not assured, unless we have a well-considered health care decision-making plan created by an estate planning attorney, while we are well and healthy.

Without such a plan, in the event of incapacity, you will not have the opportunity to convey your wishes or to ensure they will be carried out. This also leaves the family in a terrible situation, where siblings may end up in court fighting against each other to determine what kind of end-of-life care you will receive.

The best way to exercise your medical decision rights will vary to some degree by your state’s laws, but three are three basic solutions to protect you. An estate planning attorney will be needed to prepare these properly, to reflect your wishes and align with your state’s law. Do-it-yourself documents may lead to more problems than they solve.

Living Will. This document is used when you are in an end-stage medical condition or permanently unconscious. It provides clear and written instructions as to the type of treatments you do or do not want to receive, or the treatment you always want to receive in case of incapacity.

Health Care Durable Power of Attorney. The health care durable POA is broader than a living will. It covers health care decisions in all situations, when you are not able to communicate your wishes. You may appoint one or more agents to make health care decisions, which they will base on their personal knowledge of what your decisions would be if you were able to speak. Just realize that if two people are named and they do not agree on the interpretation of your decision, you may have created a problem for yourself and your family. Discuss this with your estate planning attorney.

Health Care Representative Laws. There are laws in place for what occurs if you have not signed a Health Care Durable Power of Attorney or a Living Will before becoming incompetent. They are intended to fill in the gap, by authorizing certain family members to act on your behalf and make health care decisions for you. They are a solution of last resort, and not the equal of your having had the living will and/or health care durable power of attorney created for you.

If the statute names multiple people, like all of your children, there may be a difference of opinion and the children may “vote” on what’s to happen to you. Otherwise, they’ll end up in court.

The more detailed your documents, the better prepared your loved ones will be when decisions need to be made. Share your choices about specific treatments. For instance, would you want to be taken off a ventilator, if you were in a coma with limited brain function and with no hope of recovery? What if there was a slim chance of recovery? The decisions are not easy. Neither is considering such life or death matters.

Regardless of the emotional discomfort, planning for health-care decisions can provide peace of mind for yourself and loved ones.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 29, 2021) “Now Is the Time to Protect Your Health Care Decision Making Rights”

Your Will and Estate Planning Checklist

Dying without a last will creates additional costs and eliminates any chance your wishes for loved ones will be followed after your death. Typically, people think about last wills when they marry or have children, and then do not think about last wills or estate plans until they retire. While a last will is important, there are other estate planning documents that are just as important, says the recent article “10 Steps to Writing a Will” from U.S. News & World Report.

Most assets, including retirement accounts and insurance policy proceeds, can be transferred to heirs outside of a will, if they have designated beneficiaries. However, the outcome of an estate may be more impacted by Power of Attorney for financial matters and Medical Power of Attorney documents.

Here are ten specific tasks that need to be completed for your last will to be effective. Remember, if the will does not comply with your state’s estate law, it can be declared invalid.

  1. Find an estate planning attorney who is experienced with the laws of your state.
  2. Select beneficiaries for your last will.
  3. Check beneficiaries on non-probate assets to make sure they are current.
  4. Decide who will be the executor of your last will.
  5. Name a guardian for minor children, if yours are still young.
  6. Make a letter describing possessions and who you want to receive them. Be very specific.

There are also tasks for your own care while you are living, in case of incapacity:

  1. Name a person for the Power of Attorney role. They will be your representative for legal and financial matters, but only while you are living.
  2. Name a person for the Medical Power of Attorney to make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot.
  3. Create an Advance Directive, also known as a Living Will, to explain your wishes for medical care, particularly concerning end-of-life care.
  4. Discuss these roles and their responsibilities with the people you have chosen, and make sure they are willing to serve.

Be realistic about the people you are naming to receive your property. If you have a child who is not good with managing money, a trust can be set up to distribute assets according to your wishes: by age or accomplishments, like finishing college, going to rehab, or maintaining a steady work history.

Do not forget to tell family members where they can find your last will and other estate documents. You should also talk with them about your digital assets. If accounts are protected by passwords or facial recognition, find out if the digital platform has a process for your executor to legally obtain access to your digital assets.

Finally, do not neglect updating your last will every three to four years or anytime you have a major life event. An estate plan is like a house: it needs regular maintenance. Old last wills can disinherit family members or lead to the wrong person being in charge of your estate. An experienced estate planning attorney will make the process easier and straightforward for you and your loved ones.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 13, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

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”

Should I Discuss Estate Planning with My Children?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children” says that staying up-to-date with your estate plan and sharing your plans with your children could make a big impact on your legacy and what you’ll pay in estate taxes. Let’s look at why you should consider talking to your children about estate planning.

People frequently create an estate plan and name their child as the trustee or executor. However, they fail to discuss the role and what’s involved with them. Ask your kids if they’re comfortable acting as the executor, trustee, or power of attorney. Review what each of the roles involves and explain the responsibilities. The estate documents state some critical responsibilities but don’t provide all the details. Having your children involved in the process and getting their buy-in will be a big benefit in the future.

Share information about valuables stored in a fireproof safe or add their name to the safety deposit box. Tell them about your accounts at financial institutions and the titling of the various accounts, so that these accounts aren’t forgotten, and bills get paid when you’re not around.

Parents can get children involved with a meeting with their estate planning attorney to review the estate plan and pertinent duties of each child. If they have questions, an experienced estate planning attorney can answer them in the context of the overall estate plan.

If children are minors, invite the successor trustee to also be part of the meeting.

Explain what you own, what type of accounts you have and how they’re treated from a tax perspective.

Discussing your estate plan with your children provides a valuable opportunity to connect with your loved ones, even after you are gone. An individual’s attitudes about money says much about his or her values.

Sharing with your children what your money means to you, and why you are speaking with them about it, will help guide them in honoring your memory.

There are many personal reasons to discuss your estate plans with your children. While it’s a simple step, it’s not easy to have this conversation. However, the pandemic emphasized the need to not procrastinate when it comes to estate planning. It’s also provided an opportunity to discuss these estate plans with your children.

Reference: US News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

Have Estate Planning Conversations with Aging Parents
Senior couple get a gift of a tablet PC from their adult son.

Have Estate Planning Conversations with Aging Parents

Let’s start with this idea: maybe your parents are going to leave you a generous bequest as part of their estate plan. Do you know this for a fact, or is it wishful thinking? The only way to know, advises a recent article from Yahoo! Finance titled “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate (Without Making It Awkward),” is to have a conversation, or a series of conversations. It’s not the first awkward conversation you’ll have with your parents, but it may be a bit stickier than you expect.

No matter how you approach it, this is a sensitive issue. How do you avoid appearing greedy or selfish? There is actually a lot more to know beyond the inheritance issue. You need to know how to ensure that your parents’ wishes are carried out, while they are living as well as after their deaths.

It will be helpful to be aware that the prospective inheritance amount may change over the course of your parents’ remaining lives. You also don’t want your parents thinking that you consider yourself entitled in any way to the assets they have built over the course of their lives.

Instead, start the conversation by talking about their estate plan. Explain that you want to be able to follow their instructions. You might reference an article or blog post that you have read about the importance of estate planning. You can also talk about your own estate plan, explaining that you have created an estate plan to protect your children and family members and to be sure that your instructions are followed.

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge how difficult this conversation is for you. Reassure them that you are not looking forward to their demise, but you have concerns about how things will work out when the time does come.

Depending upon your family dynamics, holidays may be a good time to address estate planning. This provides an opportunity for all family members to be included and for concerns and plans to be shared among involved siblings.

This does not mean discussing inheritances at the dinner table. Focus on what your parents’ wishes are and include a conversation about what values they would like to pass on to the next generation. If there are family histories or stories to share, this is also part of your inheritance.

Regardless of when or how you approach the topic, you do want to be sure your parents have a plan in place, so there is a path for whoever will be taking care of them and their assets. Ask if they have these key legal documents:

  • A Last Will, also known as a Last Will and Testament
  • A Power of Attorney to designate someone to make financial and legal decisions, if they are not able to do so for themselves.
  • A Living Will or health care directive that will designate someone who can make healthcare decisions and address end of life care for them.

Ask where your parents keep these documents, and how you can find them when the time comes. Are they in your father’s night table, or in a lockbox in the attic? If they have a financial advisor or estate planning attorney, who is that person? You’ll need to be able to access the documents and speak with their estate planning attorney.

A few awkward moments now will help all of you as your parents, and you, move through the coming stages of life.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (March 25, 2021) “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate (Without Making It Awkward)”

Why Do I Need a Will?

Estate planning attorneys aren’t the only professionals to advise anyone who is a legal adult and of sound mind to have a will. Financial advisors, CPAs and other professional advisors recognize that without a will, a person places themselves and their family in an unnecessarily difficult position. A recent article titled “One document everyone should have” from the Aiken Standard explains why this document is so important and what else is needed for an estate plan. A will is a “testamentary” document, meaning it becomes operative, only when the person who makes the will (the “testator”) dies.

The process of probate can only begin upon death. Each county or jurisdiction has a probate court, where the estate assets of deceased individuals are administrated. On the date a person dies, those assets must be identified. Some assets must be used to pay debts, if there are any, and the balance is distributed either according to the directions in the will or, if there is no will or the will has been deemed to be invalid, according to the laws of the state.

All this assumes, by the way, that the decedent did not arrange for his or her assets to pass without probate, by various non-probate transfer methods. For example, there is no probate required, if there is a surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary.

When there is no will and assets are subject to probate, then such assets are passed by intestacy, which usually means they are distributed along the lines of kinship. This may not always be the desired outcome, but with no will, the law controls asset distribution.

Why is a will important?

  • It allows you to leave specific property to specific loved ones, friends, or charities.
  • It may be used to provide funeral and burial instructions, although they can also be provided in a different document, so they are available to family or friends immediately.
  • A will can direct how you want assets to be used to pay debts, any taxes and payment of estate administration expenses, which include the cost of probate, legal fees and executor fees.
  • A will can be used to minimize estate taxes, which may be levied not just by the federal government but also by the state.
  • The will names the estate’s executor and the extent of his or her powers.
  • If there are minor children, the will is used to name a guardian to raise the children.
  • If you would like to disinherit any relative, the will provides the means to doing so.

Everyone needs a will, regardless of how large or small their personal assets may be. Every adult should also have an estate plan that includes other important documents, like a Power of Attorney to name another individual to act on your behalf, if you are unable to do so because of an injury or illness. A Healthcare Proxy and a Living Will are also important, so those who love you can follow your end of life care wishes.

Reference: Aiken Standard (March 13,2021) “One document everyone should have”

Just What Does an Executor Do?

Spending the least amount of time possible contemplating your death is what most people try to do. However, one part of the estate planning process needs time and reflection: deciding who should serve in important roles, including executor. Whatever the size of your estate, the people you name have jobs that will impact your life and your family’s future, says a recent article “How to get it right when naming an executor and filling other key roles in your estate plan” from CNBC. A quick decision now might have a bad outcome later.

First, let’s look at the executor. They are responsible for everything from filing your last will with the court to paying off debts, closing accounts and making sure that assets in your probate estate are distributed according to the directions in your last will. They need to be trustworthy, organized and able to manage financial decisions. They also need to be available to handle your estate, in addition to their other responsibilities.

Note that some of your assets, including retirement tax deferred accounts, life insurance proceeds and any other assets with a named beneficiary, will pass outside of your probate estate. These assets need to be identified and the custodian needs to be notified so the heir can receive the asset.

Settling an estate takes an average of 16 months, with smaller estates being settled more quickly. Larger estates, worth more than $5 million and up, can take as long as four years to settle.

Some people prefer to name co-executors as a means of spreading out the responsibilities. That ix fine, unless the two people have a history of not getting along, as is the case with many siblings. Sharing the duties sounds like a good idea, but it can lead to delays if the two don’t agree or can’t coordinate their estate tasks. Many estate planning attorneys recommend naming one person as the executor and a second as the contingency executor, in case the first cannot serve or decides he or she does not want to take on the responsibilities. The same applies to any trustees, if your estate plan includes a trust.

Make sure the people you are considering as executor, contingent executor, trustee or success or trustee are willing to take on these roles. If there is no one in your life who can take on these tasks, an option is to name an estate planning attorney, accountant, or trust company.

Another important role in your estate plan is the Power of Attorney. You’ll want one for financial decisions and another for healthcare decisions. They can be the same person or different people. Understand that the financial Power of Attorney will have complete control over your assets, including accounts, real estate, and personal property, if you are too incapacitated to make decisions or to communicate your wishes.

The healthcare Power of Attorney will be making medical decisions on your behalf. You will want to name a person you trust to carry out your wishes—even if they are not the same ones they would want, or if your family opposes your wishes. It’s not an easy task, so be sure to create a Living Will to express your wishes, if you are placed on life support or suffer from a terminal condition. This will help your healthcare Power of Attorney follow your wishes.

Finally, revisit your estate plan every three to five years. Life changes, laws change and your estate plan should continue to reflect your wishes. The lives of the people in key roles change, so the same person who was ready to serve as your executor today may not be five years from now. Confirm their willingness to serve every time you review your last will, just to be sure.

Reference: CNBC (March 5, 2021) “How to get it right when naming an executor and filling other key roles in your estate plan”