Even in the wake of a global pandemic Americans are not convinced estate planning is necessary. According to a report from Caring.com, only 33% of Americans have a will or living trust. This means 2 in 3 Americans are leaving their financial future and access to assets for others to control. When questioned why they have yet to create an estate plan, respondents cited procrastination as the top reason for delay, followed closely by perceived lack of assets. Whatever the reason, creating an estate plan is imperative to ensuring your loved ones and legacy are protected.
What is an Estate Plan?
An estate plan is a set of legal documents and instructions that describe how an individual wishes to have their assets, such as property, money, and personal belongings dispersed upon death. The documents that support an estate plan typically include a last will and testament, power of attorney, beneficiary designation, advance healthcare directives, and living trust. It can also include any deeds, titles, account information, insurance policies, or other documents pertinent to the individual or beneficiary.
Procrastination has stopped many Americans from creating an estate plan to their own detriment. If at the time of death an estate plan has not been solidified, the state in which they live may step in to control and disburse any known assets. It can also result in a lengthy and unsettling probate process, which is the legal process for administering an individual’s estate at death. A detailed estate plan may help you avoid probate altogether.
Estate Plan Checklist
An experienced estate planning attorney is crucial to ensuring all of your legal documents and assets are accounted for. They will help walk you through the estate planning process and suggest strategies that benefit the estate and its beneficiaries.
Before you meet with an attorney, or as part of the homework they give you, it’s important to inventory your assets so that they are included within your estate documents. Assets can be both tangible and intangible and can include things like:
- Checking and savings accounts
- Stocks and bonds
- Retirement accounts, such as 401(k)
- Family heirloom items
- Digital Assets
- Life insurance policies
- Home appraisals
- Prenuptial agreements
- Personal belongings
Once itemized your estate planning attorney will likely recommend the completion of these 5 key legal documents, plus others that may be state or circumstance specific:
- Last Will and Testament: This is arguably the most important document that supports an estate plan as it records how the individual wants their assets to be distributed upon death. This can include property ownership, custody of children under age 18, charitable contributions, and the appointment of an executor.
- Beneficiary Designation: This legal document names the individuals who will receive your assets as indicated in your last will and testament. A beneficiary can be a spouse, child, family member, significant other, charity, or anyone else you deem worthy of benefiting from your assets. Whoever you designate, be sure to be as clear as possible by including formal name, social security number, and any other pertinent personal information.
- Power of Attorney: Power of attorney (POA) is the legal authority of a person or group of people to act on behalf of another person, including health care decisions and financial matters. Completing your state-specific POA document doesn’t mean you are handing over complete control to your POA designee. The individual still has the legal authority to make decisions and revoke the power of attorney at any point.
- Advanced Healthcare Directives: This document gives instructions on health-related decisions should the individual become ill or incapacitated. Just like POA, this document is state-specific and should be updated and communicated regularly should circumstances change.
- Living Trust: A revocable trust, or better known as a living trust, offers a way to keep control of your assets while still living. This type of trust allows the individual to be the trustee and beneficiary so that changes can be made at any point in time. A living trust also helps protect assets from probate.
Probate is the process of administering the estate of a deceased individual. An estate executor, if named in the will, is responsible for locating assets and estimating the value of the estate itself, with the exception of real estate. The executor must also file any necessary paperwork, like income tax and estate tax. And before any assets can be distributed to the heirs or beneficiaries, the executor must pay off all debts or liabilities.
Developing a thorough estate plan can help the probate process feel far less painful. If no executor is named or no will is available, the decisions on how to manage and distribute assets are likely taken over by the state. This is called intestate and it can be an extensive and painstaking process.
After constructing an estate plan it’s important to continuously reassess and update the documents after important life events, such as the birth of a child or the creation of a new business. This means including or removing any new or unnecessary assets or updating beneficiaries, as needed.
Imagine if your treasured family heirloom was left up to the state to decide its landing spot. Or, your loved ones were unable to pay living expenses because your assets were tied up in probate court. It is important to take control of your estate and assets by creating an estate plan that helps protect your legacy and benefits your loved ones. Not sure where to start? Our team is happy to provide references from our years of experience working with estate planning attorneys and professional trustees.
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