Article: A Primer for Estate Planning
Estate planning is a task that people tend to put off, as any discussion of “the end” tends to be off-putting. However, those who leave this world without their financial affairs in good order risk leaving their heirs some significant problems along with their legacies.
Create a will if you don’t have one
Many people never get around to creating a will, even to the point of buying a will-in-a-box at a stationery store or setting one up online.
A solid will, drafted with the guidance of an estate planning attorney, may cost you more than a will-in-a-box, but it may prove to be some of the best money you ever spend. A valid will may save your heirs from expensive headaches linked to probate and ambiguity.
Complement your will with related documents
Depending on your estate planning needs, this could include some kind of trust (or multiple trusts), durable financial and medical powers of attorney, a living will and more.
You should know that a living will is not the same thing as a durable medical power of attorney. A living will makes your wishes known when it comes to life-prolonging medical treatments, and it takes the form of a directive. A durable medical power of attorney authorizes another party to make medical decisions for you (including endof- life decisions), if you become incapacitated or otherwise unable to make these decisions.
Review your beneficiary designations
Who is the beneficiary of your IRA? How about your 401(k)? How about your annuity or life insurance policy? When it comes to retirement accounts and life insurance, many people don’t know that beneficiary designations take priority over bequests made in wills and living trusts. If you named a now-estranged child once as the beneficiary of your life insurance policy, he or she will receive the death benefit when you die—regardless of what your will states.*
Create asset and debt lists
Does this sound like a lot of work? It may not be. You should provide your heirs with an asset and debt “map” they can follow should you pass away, so that they will be
Select a reliable executor
- One list should detail your real property and personal property assets. It should list any real estate you own, and its worth; it should also list personal property items in your home, garage, backyard, warehouse, storage unit or small business that have notable monetary worth.
- Another list should detail your bank and brokerage accounts, your retirement accounts, and any other forms of investment, plus any insurance policies. Think about consolidating your “stray” IRAs. This could make one of your lists a little shorter. Consolidation means fewer account statements, less paperwork for your heirs and fewer administrative fees to bear.
- A third list should detail your credit card debts, your mortgage and/or HELOC, and any other outstanding consumer loans.
Who have you chosen to administer your estate when the time comes? The choice may seem obvious, but consider a few factors. Is there a stark possibility that your named executor might die before you do? How well does he or she comprehend financial matters or the basic principles of estate law? What if you change your mind about the way you want your assets distributed—can you easily communicate those wishes to that person?
Your executor should have copies of your will, forms of power of attorney, any kind of healthcare proxy or living will, and any trusts you create. In fact, any of your loved ones referenced in these documents should also receive copies of them.
Talk to professionals
Do-it-yourself estate planning is not recommended, especially if your estate is complex enough to trigger financial, legal and emotional issues among your heirs upon your passing. Keep in mind, money isn’t the only reason for an estate plan. You may not be a multimillionaire, but if you own a business, have a blended family, have kids with special needs, worry about dementia, or can’t stand the thought of probate delays plus probate fees whittling away at assets you have amassed…you will find peace of mind by creating and maintaining an estate planning strategy.
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