Estate planning is about taking charge of your legacy and your life. Despite all good intentions, only one in three Americans has an estate plan, according to a recent article from Kiplinger, “10 Things You Should Know About Estate Planning.”
An estate plan does not prevent death or illness. However, it does protect the family from stress and grief. By creating an estate plan, you provide your loved ones with clarity about what you want to happen to your property upon your death.
Equally importantly, the estate plan explains your wishes if you have a serious medical condition and can’t make decisions or communicate yourself. A financial Power of attorney (POA) names someone to oversee your finances and do tasks like paying bills if you are alive but incapacitated. A healthcare POA names someone to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. A healthcare directive explains your wishes for medical treatment in different situations.
What happens if you don’t have an estate plan? Each state has its own laws for what to do when someone dies or if they become incapacitated. Having an estate plan means you are making those decisions yourself. The court may assign someone to make healthcare and/or financial decisions for you. However, they may not be the person you would have selected or make the decisions you would have chosen.
Beneficiary designations supersede your will. Any account with beneficiary designations will go to the person named on the document, regardless of what your will may say.
Trust funds provide control of assets during life and after death. A trust is a legal entity holding property for someone else’s benefit. The trust can be set up to control exactly how you want your money and property distributed after death.
When you die, the court reviews your will to ensure that it’s been properly prepared and gives your executor the power to perform their tasks. This is called probate and can take time. A good estate plan can take much or all your assets out of your probate estate, speeding up the process of distributing assets faster.
Estate planning includes tax planning. In 2024, the federal exemption is $13.61 million, but 17 states and the District of Columbia levy a state estate tax. Some states also have inheritance taxes. Your estate planning attorney will help you incorporate tax planning into your estate plan.
Don’t neglect your pets. You can express your wishes in an estate plan. However, a pet trust is better. It is enforceable and provides specific information about how you want the pet to be cared for and who you want to care for it.
Digital assets need to be addressed to protect assets and prevent theft. Create an inventory of your accounts, usernames, passwords and name a person who will be your digital executor.
Review your plan every three to five years with an experienced estate planning attorney.
Reference: Kiplinger (Feb. 1, 2024) “10 Things You Should Know About Estate Planning”