Don’t Ask Heirs to Guess What You Wanted—Have an Estate Plan
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Don’t Ask Heirs to Guess What You Wanted—Have an Estate Plan

With an estate plan, you can distribute your assets according to your own wishes. Without one, your heirs may spend years and a good deal of money trying to settle your estate, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “5 Reasons to Make an Estate Plan.”

If there is no estate plan in place, including a will, living trust, advance directives and other documents, people you love will be put in a position of guessing what you wanted for any number of things, from what your final wishes would be in a medical crisis, to what kind of a funeral would like to have. That guessing can cause strife between family members and worry, for a lifetime, that they didn’t do what you wanted.

Think of your estate plan as a love letter, showing that you care enough about those you love to do right by them.

What is estate planning? Estate planning is the process of legally documenting what you want to happen when you die. It also includes planning for your wishes in case of incapacity, that is, when you are not legally competent to make decisions for yourself because of illness or an injury. This is done through the use of wills, trusts, advance directives and beneficiary designations on accounts and life insurance policies.

Let’s face it, people don’t like to think about their passing, so they postpone making an appointment with an estate planning attorney. There’s also the fear of the unknown: will they have to share a lot of information with the attorney? Will it become complicated? Will they have to make decisions that they are not sure they can make?

Estate planning attorneys are experienced with the issues that come with planning for incapacity and death, and they are able to guide clients through the process.

The power of putting wishes down on paper can provide a great deal of relief to the people who are making the plan and to their family members. Here are five reasons why everyone should have an estate plan:

Avoid Probate. Without a will, the probate court decides how to distribute your estate. In some states, it can take at least seven months to allow creditors to put through claims. The estate is also public, with your information available to the public. Probate can also be expensive.

Minimize Taxes. There are a number of strategies that can be used to minimize taxes being imposed on your heirs. While the federal estate tax exemption is $11.4 million per individual, states have estate taxes and some states impose an inheritance taxes. An estate planning attorney can help you minimize the tax impact of your estate.

Care for Minor Children. Families with minor children need a plan for care, if both parents should pass away. Without a will that names a guardian for young children, the court will appoint a guardian to raise a child. With a will, you can prevent the scenario of relatives squabbling over who should get custody of minor children.

Distributing Assets. If you have a will, you can say who you want to get what assets. If you don’t, the laws of your state will determine who gets what. You can also use trusts to control how and when assets are distributed, in case there are heirs who are unable to manage money.

Plan for Pets. In many states, you can create a Pet Trust and name a trustee to manage the money, while naming someone in your will who will be in charge of caring for your pet. Seniors are often reluctant to get a pet, because they are concerned that they will die before the pet. However, with an estate plan that includes a pet trust, you can protect your pet.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (October 18, 2019) “5 Reasons to Make an Estate Plan”

Ignoring Beneficiary Designations Is a Risky Business

Ignore beneficiary forms at your and your heirs’ own peril, especially when there are minor children, is the message from TAPintoChatham.com’s recent article “Are You Read to Deal with Your Beneficiary Forms?” The knee-jerk reaction is to name the spouse as a primary beneficiary and then name the minor children as contingent beneficiaries. However, this is not always the best way to deal with retirement assets.

Remember that retirement assets are different from taxable accounts. When distributions are made from retirement accounts, they are treated as Ordinary Income (OI) and are subject to the OI tax rate. Retirement plans have beneficiary forms, which overrule whatever your will documents may state. Because they have beneficiary forms, these accounts pass outside of your estate and are governed by their own rules and regulations.

Here are a few options for beneficiary designations when there are minors:

Name your spouse as the primary beneficiary and minor children as the contingent beneficiaries. This is the usual response (see above), but there is a problem. If the minor children inherit a retirement asset, they will need a guardian for that asset. The guardian named for their care and well-being in the will does not apply, because this asset passes outside of the estate. Therefore, the court may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to represent the child’s interest for this asset. That could be a paid stranger appointed by the court, until the child reaches the age of majority, usually 18 in most states.

Elect a guardian in the retirement plan beneficiary form. Some custodians have a section of their beneficiary form to choose a guardian for minor. Most forms, unfortunately, do not provide this option.

Make your estate the contingent beneficiary of the retirement account. While this would solve the problem of not having a guardian for the minor children, because it would kick the retirement plan into the estate, it may lead to adverse tax consequences. An estate does not have a measuring life, so the retirement asset would need to be fully distributed in five years.

Leave the assets to the minor children in a trust. This is the most effective means of leaving retirement assets to minor children without terrible tax consequences or needing to have the court appoint a stranger to oversee the child’s funds. Your attorney would either create a separate trust for the minor child or build a conduit trust under your will or a revocable trust to hold this specific asset. You would then change your beneficiary form to make said trust or sub-trusts for each minor child the contingent beneficiary of your retirement plan. This way you control who the guardian is for this asset for your minor child and are tax efficient.

Whichever way you decide to go, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to determine which is the best plan for your family.

Reference: TAPintoChatham.com (Sep. 8, 2109) “Are You Read to Deal with Your Beneficiary Forms?”

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