“Estate Planning” is the creation of documents that help you plan for the future. The “Plan” will include documents that empower someone of your choosing to make financial or healthcare decisions for you when you are not able. The “Plan” will also lay out the way you want your possessions distributed at your death, either through a Will or a Trust. An “Estate Plan” is not a matter of how much you have but how much control you want to keep.
Estate Planning, when done correctly, should above all else provide you with the peace of mind that comes from knowing you have done everything possible to protect yourself and your family. We help you accomplish all of your personal planning goals and benefit your family by eliminating unnecessary probate costs, guardianship hearings, and taxes.
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. 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.
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 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 should you become permanently unconscious or terminally ill.
If you leave your estate to your loved ones using a will, all of your assets 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. 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. With proper planning, your assets can pass on to your loved ones without undergoing probate, in a way that is efficient and private.
It is important that your estate plan address issues regarding the upbringing of your children. A good plan should provide for people you’d like to manage your assets as well as the guardian you’d like to nominate for the upbringing of your children. Otherwise, the decision as to who will manage your finances and raise your children will be left to a court of law. 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.
Whether there will be any federal estate tax to pay depends on the size of your estate and how your estate plan works. There are many well-established strategies that can be implemented to reduce or eliminate death taxes, but you must start the planning process early in order to implement many of these plans.
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 and income taxes and unnecessary delays. The primary goal of wealth transfer should be the preservation of your values and the corresponding protection of your children. With issues today of divorce, drug and alcohol dependence, lawsuits, and fiscal irresponsibility, you can design a plan that can give your children the support and maintenance they need while safeguarding them. Outright distributions can, and often do, have a devastating effect on the recipient. Comprehensive estate planning will ask the right questions and provide the solutions you may want and need. 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.
When someone passes away, his or her property must somehow pass to another person. In the United States, any competent adult has the right to choose the manner in which his or her assets are distributed after his or her passing. (The main exception to this general rule involves what is called a spousal right of election which disallows the complete disinheritance of a spouse in most states.) A proper estate plan also involves strategies to minimize potential estate taxes and settlement costs as well as to coordinate what would happen with your home, your investments, your business, your life insurance, your employee benefits (such as a 401K plan), and other property in the event of death or disability. On the personal side, a good estate plan should include directions to carry out your wishes regarding health care matters, so that if you ever are unable to give the directions yourself, someone you know and trust would do that for you, and know when you would want them to authorize extraordinary measures and when you would prefer they pull the plug.
Sadly, many families don’t do proper estate planning because they don’t believe that they have “a lot of assets” or otherwise believe that their kids can just come in and divide their assets by themselves. If you don’t make proper legal arrangements for the management of your assets and affairs after your passing, the state’s intestacy laws will take over upon your death or incapacity. This often results in the wrong people getting your assets, and very often results in much higher estate taxes.
Specifically, if you die intestate, the transfer of your assets is accomplished through a public, court-supervised proceeding called probate that generally takes a minimum of six months, typically a year or more. These public proceedings are generally expensive and time-consuming in nature and tie up your assets for several months. Even worse, your failure to outline your intentions through proper estate planning can tear apart your family as each person maneuvers to be appointed with the authority to manage your affairs. Nor is it unusual for bitter family feuds to ensue over modest sums of money or a family heirloom.
Your estate is simple everything that you own, anywhere in the world, including:
If you have children under the age of eighteen, you should designate a person or persons to be appointed guardian(s) over their person and property. Of course, if a surviving parent lives with the minor children (and has custody over them) he or she automatically continues to remain their sole guardian. This is true despite the fact that others may be named as the guardian in your estate planning documents. You should name at least one alternate guardian in case the primary guardian cannot serve or is not appointed by the court.
A comprehensive estate plan should include the following documents, prepared by an attorney based on in-depth counseling which takes into account your particular family and financial situation:
A Living Trust can be used to hold legal title to and provide a mechanism to manage your property. You (and your spouse) are the Trustee(s) and beneficiaries of your trust during your lifetime. You also designate successor Trustees to carry out your instructions as you have provided in case of death or incapacity. Unlike a Will, a Trust usually becomes effective immediately after incapacity or death. Your Living Trust is “revocable” which allows you to make changes and even to terminate it. One of the great benefits of a properly funded Living Trust is the fact that it will avoid or minimize the expense, delays and publicity associated with probate. Read the FAQ section on Living Trust for more information.
If you have a Living Trust based estate plan, you also need a Pour-Over Will. A Pour-Over Will is used first to name a guardian for minor children. Second, it protects against intestacy in the event any assets have not been transferred into the trust at the death of the Trustmaker/Owner. It will also invalidate any previous Wills which you may have executed. Its function is to “pour” any assets left out of the trust into it so they are ultimately distributed according to the terms of your Trust.
A Will, also referred to as a “Last Will and Testament”, is primarily designed to transfer your assets according to your wishes. A Will also typically names someone you select to be your Executor, who is the person you designate to carry out your instructions. If you have minor children, you should also name a Guardian as well as alternate Guardians in case your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve. A Will only becomes effective upon your death, and after it is admitted by a probate court.
A “Durable Power of Attorney for Property” (also called Financial Power of Attorney) allows you to carry on your financial affairs in the event that you become disabled. Unless you have a properly drafted power of attorney, it may be necessary to apply to a court to have a guardian or conservator appointed to make decisions for you when you are disabled. This guardianship process is time consuming, expensive, emotionally draining and often costs thousands of dollars.
There are generally two types of durable powers of attorney: a “present” durable power of attorney in which the power is immediately transferred to your attorney in fact; and a “springing” or future durable power of attorney that only comes into effect upon your subsequent disability as determined by your doctor. When you appoint another individual to make financial decisions on your behalf, that individual is called an “attorney in fact”. Anyone can be designated, most commonly your spouse or domestic partner, a trusted family member, or friend. Appointing a power of attorney assures that your wishes are carried out exactly as you want them, allows you to decide who will make decisions for you, and is effective immediately upon subsequent disability.
The law allows you to appoint someone you trust – for example, a family member or close friend to decide 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” or Health Care Proxy where you designate the person or persons to make such decisions on your behalf. You can allow your health care agent to decide about all health care or only about certain treatments. You may also give your agent instructions that he or she has to follow. Your agent can then ensure that health care professionals follow your wishes. Hospitals, doctors and other health care providers must follow your agent’s decisions as if they were your own.
A Living Will informs others of your preferred medical treatment should you become permanently unconscious, terminally ill, or otherwise unable to make or communicate decisions regarding treatment. Almost all states have instituted living will laws to protect a patient’s right to refuse medical treatment. Even if you receive medical care in a state without living will laws this document is useful to a court trying to decide what an unconscious patient would want. In conjunction with other estate planning tools, it can bring peace of mind and security while avoiding unnecessary expense and delay in the event of future incapacity.
Some medical providers have refused to release information, even to spouses and adult children authorized by durable medical powers of attorney, on the grounds that the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, prohibits such releases. In addition to the above documents, you should also sign a HIPAA Authorization Form that allows the release of medical information to your Agents, your Successor Trustees, your family and other people whom you designate.