While nobody wants to think about death or disability, establishing an estate plan is one of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones. Proper estate planning not only puts you in charge of your finances, it can also spare your loved ones of the expense, delay and frustration associated with managing your affairs when you pass away or become disabled.
Providing for Incapacity
If you become incapacitated, you won’t be able to manage your own financial affairs. Many are under the mistaken impression that their spouse or adult children can automatically take over for them in case they become incapacitated. The truth is that in order for others to be able to manage your finances, they must petition a court to declare you legally incompetent. This process can be lengthy, costly and stressful. Even if the court appoints the person you would have chosen, they may have to come back to the court every year and show how they are spending and investing each and every penny. If you want your family to be able to immediately take over for you, you must designate a person or persons that you trust in proper legal documents so that they will have the authority to withdraw money from your accounts, pay bills, take distributions from your IRAs, sell stocks, and refinance your home. A will does not take effect until you die and a power of attorney may be insufficient.
In addition to planning for the financial aspect of your affairs during incapacity, you should establish a plan for your medical care. The law allows you to appoint someone you trust – for example, a family member or close friend to make decisions on your behalf about medical treatment options if you lose the ability to decide for yourself. You can do this by using a durable power of attorney for health care where you designate the person to make such decisions. In addition to a power of attorney for heath care, you should also have a living will which informs others of your preferred medical treatments such as the use of extraordinary measures should you become permanently unconscious or terminally ill.
If leave your estate to your loved ones using a will, everything you own will pass through probate. The process is expensive, time-consuming and open to the public. The probate court is in control of the process until the estate has been settled and distributed. If you are married and have children, you want to make certain that your surviving family has immediate access to cash to pay for living expenses while your estate is being settled. It is not unusual for the probate courts to freeze assets for weeks or even months while trying to determine the proper disposition of the estate. Your surviving spouse may be forced to apply to the probate court for needed cash to pay current living expenses. You can imagine how stressful this process can be. With proper planning, your assets can pass on to your loved ones without undergoing probate, in a manner that is quick, inexpensive and private.
Providing for Minor Children
It is important that your estate plan address issues regarding the upbringing of your children. If your children are young, you may want to consider implementing a plan that will allow your surviving spouse devote more attention to your children, without the burden of work obligations. You may also want to provide for special counseling and resources for your spouse if you believe they lack the experience or ability to handle financial and legal matters. You should also discuss with your attorney the possibility of both you and your spouse dying simultaneously, or within a short duration of time. A contingency plan should provide for persons you’d like to manage your assets as well as the guardian you’d like to nominate for the upbringing of your children. The person, or trustee in charge of the finances need not be the same person as the guardian. In fact, in many situations, you may want to purposely designate different persons to maintain a system of checks and balances. Otherwise, the decision as to who will manage your finances and raise your children will be left to a court of law. Even if you are lucky enough to have the person or persons you would have wanted selected by the court, they may have undue burdens and restrictions placed on them by the court, such as having to provide annual accounting.
Other issues to consider in this respect is whether you’d like your beneficiaries to receive your assets directly, or whether you’d prefer to have the assets placed in trust and distributed based a number of factors which you designate, such as age, need and even incentives based on behavior and education. All too often, children receive substantial assets before they are mature enough to handle them properly, with devastating results.
You should give careful thought to your choice of guardian, ensuring that he or she shares the values you want instilled in your children. You will also want to give consideration to the age and financial condition of a potential guardian. Some guardians may lack child-rearing skills you feel are necessary. Make sure that your plan does not create an additional financial burden for the guardian.
Planning for Death Taxes
The IRS will want to review your estate at death to ensure you don’t owe them that one final tax: the federal estate tax. Whether there will be any tax to pay depends on the size of your estate and how your estate plan works. Many states have their own separate estate and inheritance taxes that you need to be aware of. There are many effective strategies that can be implemented to reduce or eliminate death taxes, but you must start planning process early in order to implement many of these plans.
Charitable Bequests – Planned Giving
Do you want to benefit a charitable organization or cause? Your estate plan can provide for such organizations in a variety of ways, either during your lifetime or at your death. Depending on how your planned giving plan is set up, it may also let you receive a stream of income for life, earn higher investment yield, or reduce your capital gains or estate taxes.
A well-crafted estate plan should provide for your loved ones in an effective and efficient manner by avoiding guardianship during your lifetime, probate at death, estate taxes and unnecessary delays. You should consult a qualified estate planning attorney to review your family and financial situation, your goals and explain the various options available to you. Once your estate plan is in place, you will have peace of mind knowing that you have provided for yourself and your family in case the worst happens.
Estate Planning with Wills
Most people know about wills and their basic purpose – to ensure that one’s hard earned assets go to the right beneficiaries when an individual passes away. However, wills can be used for a lot more than simply dictating who gets a person’s antique lamp collection. Here’s a list of some of the very valuable things a will can do:
- List who gets what. The most common purpose for a will is to name which individual, or group of individuals, will receive particular property belonging to a person when he or she passes away.
- Name guardians for children. Typically, a will is the document that states who should raise a person’s children if something happens to the parent. The will also usually contains at least one alternate in the event the first choice cannot serve.
- Establish trusts. In many cases, a person may not want a child or loved one to receive all of the property that they are inheriting at once. Or a person may want the beneficiary to be able to use the property for a while, and then for it to pass on to someone else. In that situation, an individual may choose to use a trust. A trust holds property on someone else’s behalf. In wills, trusts are commonly established for minor children, so that someone else can manage the children’s money until they reach a certain age when their parents believe they will be able to manage it. Trusts are also commonly used in second marriage situations – a person may want to allow a spouse to have access to certain property while the spouse is living, but for that property to ultimately pass to the decedent’s children. Trusts can help accomplish that goal.
- List funeral wishes. Although this is also done in other documents too, a will commonly states whether an individual wants to be buried or cremated, and where the body should be buried or the ashes should be spread. Sometimes, wills contain other information about funeral wishes too like where it should take place and even what readings might be recited.
- Tax planning. Wills can be great tools for tax planning in order to avoid federal or state estate or inheritance taxes. This can sometimes be accomplished by setting up various trusts.
- Naming executors and trustees. A will usually states who will be the executor of an estate, which is the person who will carry out a deceased individual’s wishes listed in the will. Wills can also name the trustee of any trusts established in a will, which is the person who will be in charge of carrying out the instructions of the trusts.
While wills can serve as powerful estate planning tools, they are only effective if they are properly drafted to suit the needs of each individual. An estate planning attorney can review all your options with you and establish a will in a manner that ensures your wishes will be honored.
Trusts & Estate Planning
Many people have preconceived notions about trusts and believe that they are only for multi-millionaires who wish to leave large trust funds to their children. However, this is far from the truth; trusts can be invaluable tools in the estate plans of millions of individuals.
Trusts are simply an arrangement where one party holds property on behalf of another party. In an estate planning context, trusts are created by the person doing the estate planning (the settlor), who authorizes another person (the trustee) to manage the assets for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiaries). There are many reasons for establishing trusts including tax minimization or providing for the needs of underage beneficiaries.
Some types of trusts that may be useful in estate planning are:
- Trusts for minors. Many people leave money to their children or their grandchildren in a trust as part of a comprehensive estate plan. This is typically done to ensure the money is there for the children’s benefit while they are younger-for support, education, medical expenses, etc. Once the children reach a certain age or achievement level (such as obtaining a bachelor’s degree), they may receive money from the trust to do with as they please.
- Special needs trusts. Special needs trusts are tools that enable a person to leave property to an individual with special needs. Many individuals with special needs receive government benefits. If they were to suddenly inherit money, they would be disqualified in most cases from those benefits until the inheritance was spent. Special needs trusts protect those individuals’ government benefits while allowing them to have money for any extras they may need.
- Marital trusts. Married couples sometimes include trusts in their wills, or separately, for the benefit of their spouse, typically for two reasons: (1) taxes, and (2) property protection. In previous years, marital trusts were needed for some couples to take advantage of estate tax exemptions, and they may be needed in the future as the laws are expected to change. Marital trusts can also protect property from a spouse to ensure that it ultimately goes where it needs to go. For example, a husband with grown children from a previous marriage may decide to let his wife use his property after he passes, but puts it into a trust so that after she passes away it goes to his children.
- Revocable living trusts. Revocable living trusts are documents completely separate from wills although they often work hand in hand with wills to carry out the decedent’s wishes. Revocable living trusts are primarily used to avoid probate in states where probate is particularly cumbersome, or in a few other instances, such as when a person owns real estate in multiple states.
- Irrevocable life insurance trusts. Irrevocable life insurance trusts (or ILIT’s) can be used in order to move a person’s life insurance proceeds outside his or her estate for estate tax purposes.
- Spendthrift trusts. Spendthrift trusts are generally established to protect the beneficiaries’ assets from both themselves and creditors. These trusts usually have an independent trustee which has complete discretion over the distribution of assets of the trust.
As you can see, there are many different types of trusts, each of which can be customized to serve a valuable purpose in accomplishing the wishes of those making gifts or planning an estate. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you assess your finances and goals to determine the best vehicles to preserve your wealth and your legacy.