Estate planning can be difficult, time-consuming, and incredibly confusing. Estate planning can also be simple, efficient, and straightforward. The answer partly depends on individual situations and feelings toward the process. Sometimes the first description is what people hear or are told. That description can be daunting and scary. People run away from daunting and scary things. Thus, it is not a surprise that many people do not have proper estate planning in place.
Regardless of which plan fits your situation, the process should be taken seriously. Significant values of property at stake. In addition, everyone wants to be sure their wishes are set, wants minimal pain caused in the process, and wants the overall costs to accomplish all of this to be mitigated.
Detailed estate plans are not necessarily about savings huge taxes and massive trust funds. The plan might be a few sheets of paper. The question becomes how much planning is enough? The answer depends on the individual goals you want to reach. There are a variety of methods that individuals use to control their estate. Not every estate requires every method of planning. Here are five important factors to consider.
1. Beneficiary Designations
The first and easiest step to planning an estate is establishing beneficiaries of private funds or policies, like life insurance policies, 401k plans, IRAs and pensions. This is the easiest step in estate planning because it is typically requested by most plans that a primary and secondary beneficiary be listed to receive funds in the event of a death. Though some plans, like life insurance, will require the beneficiary at signup, others may make it optional to do later. This is where problems can occur. “I’ll get to this later” and later never happens. Unfortunately, sudden deaths happen more often than we would like to believe. Having a plan to revisit account beneficiaries on an annual basis to confirm existing designations but more importantly catch any new assets or accounts opened during the year.
The next major step in estate planning is establishing a last will and testament. While individuals dying without a will (dying “intestate”) still have their property divided up among family, there are no guarantees over who gets what. A will is a simple way to make sure specific items get to the intended people. If children are involved, a will becomes a necessity for a responsible parent. Wills determine who gets legal guardianship over the surviving children. Though a court will take this process seriously if the decision is left up to them, most parents would prefer they make the decision on who should raise their children. A will stating guardianship should be a top priority for anyone with children.
There is a common misperception about wills. Although declaring who should receive property is helpful, it does not guarantee another person can receive it. Account titling and beneficiary designations may prevent the property from ever getting distributed via the will. For example, if the property is owned jointly with a right of survivorship or is kept as “community property” between a married couple, ownership may be transferred before a will goes into effect. Individuals should be aware of their state’s marital property laws prior to creating a will.
3. Transfer of Power
Medical incapacitation of an individual can potentially be as difficult as death for families. Living wills give instructions for the medical care of incapacitated individuals. Though limited to these specific situations, living wills can assist surviving family members with difficult decisions to mitigate conflict between members who have different views on treatment. A more in‐depth approach to prepare for sudden incapacitation is the creation of “power of attorney”. This document gives a named individual the ability to act on behalf of the disabled in legal matters. Drafted for both medical and financial decision-making, power of attorney documents can be extremely valuable to ensure care and financial matters continue as needed.
There is the perception that trusts are entities that are meant for the ultra‐wealthy. The truth is trusts can be used by most people to create detailed control over an estate. A trust is simply a legal entity that holds property for the benefit of a few named individuals. Though the major advantages of a trust are deferring probate fees and having circumstantial control over property distribution, trusts are also useful for couples who have children from prior marriages. For example, a person can place property that would pay interest to help support the surviving spouse but ultimately distributes property to his or her children, guaranteeing they receive some of the inheritance.
5. Securing Documents
After necessary estate documents are prepared, they should be adequately stored and protected. Wills are the most difficult to protect. Most states recognize only the original signed document as having any legal power. If the original is destroyed, a new will must be drafted. Typically, the law firm where the document was created will offer to keep the will in an extremely secure safe. Other documents, such as living wills and power of attorney, can typically be copied and notarized to create duplicates that carry the same legal power as the original. As with wills, loved ones should be informed of the location of the documents so they can be accessed when needed.
Although your MGFIN team can be relied on to help with these important discussions, we cannot do this process alone. We need trusted professionals to be able to successfully complete client’s estate planning needs. Our team at McCarthy Grittinger Financial Group has had the privilege of working with some superb estate planning attorneys over the years. One of those attorneys is Evelyn Brown. Evelyn has recently made the difficult decision to wind down her everyday practice. A big thank you to Evelyn for always being a trusted resource for us and her clients. We want to wish her all the best in her new endeavors. If Evelyn has been your attorney, please do not hesitate to reach out to us with any questions.