Estate planning might seem like something meant only for the old or sick, but that’s not the case — especially in today’s day and age. In a world of global pandemics and other unpredictable events that could put you or your family members into turmoil, it’s important to spend some time deciding what will happen to you or your assets if you become incapacitated or when you someday die.
Although this might be a gloomy thing to consider, having an estate plan in place can offer much-needed peace of mind if the unexpected occurs, and when the inevitable takes place. This type of planning can put everything in order for your loved ones, from a living will to insurance to the handling of estate taxes.
Here are some of the basics about estate planning that you’ll want to know, and a few reasons why you’re never too young to get started.
What is estate planning?
The aspect of estate planning that most of us are more familiar with involves mapping out what will happen to your assets (bank accounts, real estate, other valuable personal property, etc.) when you die. But estate planning also involves thinking ahead to what will need to be handled if you become incapacitated due to illness or an accident. The goal of estate planning is to simplify the legal aspect of things for your beneficiaries so they don’t have to endure a lengthy and expensive probate process.
The planning process and the filing of the associated legal documents is typically conducted with the help of an estate planning attorney or an estate planner who specialize in the field. Estate planners may also have a background in areas like insurance and finance. A professional specializing in estate planning can help you prepare all the necessary documents and walk you through the challenges your designated beneficiaries may face.
Here are more details on the various aspects of estate planning:
- Will: One of the most important documents in your estate planning is your last will and testament. Wills are important because they determine who will receive your assets when you die. This might include money you’ve invested in retirement accounts (like a 401(k) and/or IRA), any businesses or patents you own, and physical assets like properties and other things of value.
- Durable power of attorney: A power of attorney allows someone else to handle your legal, financial, and even medical matters. Durable means this person can step in even if you become mentally incapacitated due to illness or other circumstances. Although you can appoint one person to be your durable power of attorney, you can also split out powers of attorney between different people to act in a particular area. For example, you might choose someone to act just as your financial power of attorney.
- Health care proxy: A health care proxy is a type of advanced directive. The person named in your health care proxy is your medical power of attorney and is able to make medical care decisions on your behalf in the event that you cannot make them yourself. There are other types of health care directives you may consider in your planning as well.
- Life insurance: If you provide a significant portion of your family’s income, it’s a good idea not only to have a life insurance policy, but also to truly understand how much life insurance you need. These policies will not only help support your family in the event of your death, but they can also provide the cash needed to keep your assets intact. For example, they can help pay for unexpected tax expenses.
- Living trust or revocable living trust: Setting up what’s called a living trust allows you to start planning for the allocation of your assets while you’re still alive. Most living trusts are revocable, which means you can change them whenever you want, though some people may opt for irrevocable trusts that cannot be changed.
- Charitable donation: If you or one of your beneficiaries are passionate about a particular charity, this will allow for either of you to donate a portion of your assets.
- Funeral arrangements: Funerals can be expensive, with the average one costing between $7,000 and $10,000 in 2018. Making a plan for how you’d like your funeral to be handled and paid for is an important element in estate planning, and it takes a lot of pressure off your surviving family members.
- Naming a guardian: If you have any dependents or minor children, it’s important to name a guardian for them somewhere within your estate planning documentation. This ensures your loved ones will be taken care of by the people you trust most in the event of your death. This is particularly critical if you have special needs dependents.
- Tax planning: The transfer of assets can result in complicated federal estate tax and inheritance taxes on the state level as well. For this reason, tax planning is another element of comprehensive estate planning regardless of the value of the estate. This type of planning will facilitate a smoother distribution of assets without unexpected income tax expenses.
- Naming an executor: You’ll also want to name an executor of your estate. This person will be responsible for carrying out all your wishes and instructions within the estate planning documents. This person plays the important role of ensuring things are carried out the way you intended them to be.
Why estate planning is important
Estate planning is important because it guarantees your assets are distributed the way you’d like them to be. Although you might think the value of your estate doesn’t warrant a plan, consider that estate planning encompasses far more than just bank accounts and also encompasses health care decisions that may be made on your behalf.
If you happen to die without an estate plan in place, the state you live in will likely allocate your assets on your behalf. This can be messy for a number of reasons, especially because each state has its own protocol. Roughly speaking, most states will first try to give your assets to your spouse and children, followed by your living parents or siblings. If this isn’t what you want, or if you want to allocate your assets in a particular way, it’s best to create an estate plan ahead of time.
Because estate planning can also involve health care directives and powers of attorney, it can also play a valuable role should you become incapacitated and require long-term care. This is something that could happen to any of us at any time due to the unpredictable nature of life and accidents.
Another thing to consider is the stress that a lack of planning can put on your living family members. Maybe your kids believe they’re entitled to something your spouse wants, or your siblings swear you promised them the vacation property you’ve shared since childhood. Whatever your assets and financial affairs look like, a lack of planning can cause a lot of tension and irreparable emotional damage in the family after you’re gone.
Without a plan in place, you may inadvertently leave your loved ones to take the matter to probate court to fight for certain assets. This can be an expensive and drawn-out legal process. You can avoid leaving drama behind you by taking measures to properly plan out your estate, and appoint the right people to carry out your wishes once you’re gone.
How to get started with estate planning
Once you’re ready to get started with estate planning, it’s good to be aware of the federal and state taxes that may be involved. Different states handle estate planning taxes differently, and depending on the size of your estate and specifics of how you plan to allocate your assets, it might be a good idea to hire an attorney.
Beyond the complications of tax laws, there are a few other ways you can get started with regard to your estate planning before involving an attorney. To start, you might write down your beneficiary designations and explain what you’d like each one to inherit. If you have kids, maybe it’s time to call up the person you trust most and ask whether they’d be willing to become a legal guardian. You might also start thinking about who you’d like to appoint as an executor and health care proxy, and start having honest discussions with those people.
Finally, if you haven’t yet, start shopping around for the best life insurance for your needs. The right insurance plan will offer a lot of comfort to your family should the worst happen. And in the present, it will provide good peace of mind for you to know they’ll have the income they need.
What's the difference between creating a will and estate planning?
A will allows you to bequest your assets, which means specifying who inherits them. It's part of an estate plan, but you may need other legal tools to make a comprehensive plan.
For example, a trust would give you more control over how an inheritance is used. Or a living will could specify what kinds of medical care you want in an emergency. Talking with a lawyer may be necessary to identify all of the tools — beyond a will — that you need for a comprehensive estate plan.
What is the main purpose of estate planning?
Estate planning serves two purposes: Helping to protect your family’s finances and making life easier for yourself and your family down the line.
For instance, you could use an estate plan to specify who should inherit which assets, dictate how an inheritance is used, and potentially avoid IRS taxes on an inheritance. You could also use estate planning to protect assets in case you need nursing home care, provide instructions for your future medical care, and designate who should make decisions on your behalf in case of incapacity.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of a trust?
Trusts can help provide protection for assets while you are alive and after your death. Putting assets into a trust could potentially allow you to shield those assets from inheritance taxes. They can also help you potentially qualify for Medicaid coverage or nursing home care without your having to impoverish yourself. Additionally, trusts can give you more control over how an inheritance is spent or enable you to leave money to a loved one with special needs without causing a loss of means-tested government benefits.
Unfortunately, trusts can be complex and costly to create and maintain. Depending on the type of trust, they can also involve giving up substantial control over some of your assets.
Should you designate a contingent beneficiary?
A contingent beneficiary is a person who will inherit your assets if your primary beneficiary cannot or will not do so. If your primary beneficiary has passed away, for example, a contingent beneficiary will receive your assets. It’s a good idea to consider specifying a contingent beneficiary to make sure you have control over who receives your money or property when you pass on.
Estate planning might seem like something you don’t have to worry about just yet, but if you have any financial accounts worth inheriting or any family members counting on you, it’s a good thing to start now. An estate plan can be something you slowly put together, just like your retirement plans. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive, and an expert estate planner can help facilitate the process.
Start by talking with your beneficiaries and executor to share your plans, and then reach out to a professional to help you put them in writing. That way, even if the unexpected does happen — the people you love most will be left in good hands.