Estate Planning 101: Preparing for the Possible and the Inevitable

We interrupt this regularly cheerful website to bring you some unpleasant news: You're not going to live forever. And, just to pile on the unpleasantness, you might become incapacitated before you join that Great Tax Shelter in the Sky.

I know, this isn't fun to think about. But what's even worse is not thinking about it at all, which could leave your family trying to sort through all your affairs at a time of turmoil and grief.

We're talking about estate planning, something many think is just for “rich” people — but it's not. Everyone should take the following 10 steps to get their legal ducks in a row.

Create (or update) your will

If you die without a will, the state decides who gets what (including your kids or pets), costing your family time and legal fees. So create a will, if you haven't already. If you already have a will, update it every three years, whenever you go through a significant life event (e.g., marriage, divorce, sell a business), or if you move to a different state.

Get a living will

Make known the kind of medical care you wish to receive, and at what point you no longer wish to receive any care.

Appoint a durable power of attorney

Designate a trusted person to handle your financial affairs if you ever become incapacitated.

Factor probate into your plan

Probate is the process by which the state validates legal documents and ensures they're properly executed. Depending on the state, this can be a lengthy, costly, and public process. There are several simple ways to avoid probate (discussed later) and a few more complicated and expensive ways (e.g., trusts). Research the probate process in your area and determine whether bypassing probate should be a priority.

Update your beneficiary forms

Insurance policies and investment accounts with properly completed beneficiary forms bypass probate and go directly to the named beneficiaries — even if the deceased person's will directs the assets to go to someone else. Contact your financial services companies to make sure they have updated forms, and keep copies for yourself.

Review the titling of your property

The legal status of your accounts, home, and other assets will also determine whether they bypass probate and a will. For example, an asset that is “joint tenancy with rights of survivorship” will become the sole property of the surviving co-owner(s) when another co-owner dies. That automatically disinherits other heirs from that asset, which may or may not be what the deceased intended.

Make moves to lower estate taxes

If the sum total of all you own — investments, cars, homes, furniture, collectibles, and other assets — is close to $2 million, then start considering strategies to lower your potential estate tax bill.

Know the truth about trusts

Trusts can be useful for avoiding probate, lowering estate taxes, and providing for relatives who may not be able to manage assets on their own. But they can also be expensive and over-promoted by law firms pejoratively known as “trust mills.” Get informed before agreeing to a trust.

Create a document that explains everything

If something were to happen to you, you'd want your family to know how to locate your accounts, insurance policies, legal documents, safe deposit boxes, hidden stashes of cash, attorney, financial planner, and other trusted advisors. Include the important information in a document that you give to someone you trust.

Discuss your plan with the people who matter

Explain your wishes to important friends and family, especially if they might have a future role to play (for example, you want them to raise your kids if something happens to you). And encourage them to get their own estate plan. If your relatives have their affairs in order, it could spare you a great deal of difficulty down the road and keep as much wealth as possible within the family.

The Bottom Line

Those are ten important steps, and they'll involve some very difficult decisions, such as who will be your executor and your plans for your final arrangements. But creating a well-designed, complete estate plan will save your family a good deal of heartache and money.

As fee-only financial planner Sheryl Garrett (of the Garrett Planning Network) told me during an interview:

Get your financial household in order and it will take as much of the financial burden off of your family and your survivors. When death occurs, it is a very, very traumatic thing on the surviving family. Don't make it worse by not taking care of your financial affairs ahead of time.

How do you get all this done? Seek out the help of a qualified, experienced estate-planning attorney in your area. Yes, you can take care of some of this by putting your notarized John Hancock on forms downloaded from the Internet. But laws vary from state to state, and recommendations vary from person to person. So spend the extra money to get the professional help. And send this article to all your relatives; making sure they have a solid estate plan will save you grief and money down the road.

J.D.'s note: I was just talking with our house painter about this on Monday. He's settling his mother's estate, and he says it's a nightmare — one filled with lawyers and $100,000 in fees. He told me, “Get a will. Learn from my family: Get a will.” Photo by Seize the Photo.

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