Understanding Estate Planning
Who are the Important People in your life? Beginning with yourself, they also likely include your loved ones: your spouse if you are married, children and grandchildren if you have any, perhaps your parents, siblings or other relatives. Beyond these, however, “Important People” also could include charities, special causes, colleges or universities, or churches to which you are committed. For some, “Important People” could even include pets. Spend some time thinking about the impact others have had on your life. Make a list and jot notes if you like. This is where the planning process truly begins.
By Property we mean your assets in general. Make a list of the assets you own or control. At this point, you do not need to identify insurance policy numbers and exact dollar values. Rather think through your assets in terms of their nature (cash, stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.); their value in thousands of dollars; and your ownership interest: Do you own assets in your name only, in joint tenancy with someone else, or through a trust agreement or some other arrangement? Be sure to include often-overlooked assets like life insurance (the death benefit, not the cash value), business interests, and any inheritance you may expect to receive.
Depending on the situation, there may be many advantages to establishing a trust, including avoiding probate court. In most cases, assets owned in a revocable living trust will pass to the trust beneficiaries (or heirs) immediately upon the death of the trust-maker(s) with no probate required. Certain trusts also may result in tax advantages both for the trust-maker and the beneficiary. Or they may be used to protect property from creditors, or simply to provide for someone else to manage and invest property for the trust-maker(s) and the named beneficiaries. If well drafted, another advantage of trusts is their continuing effectiveness even if the trust-maker dies or becomes incapacitated.
After identifying the Important People in your life and your Property, the next step is to consider the plans you would make for those people (including yourself) and that Property in the event of your own incapacity or death.
Who would you name to make decisions for you if you could no longer do so yourself? Would the same person handle your finances and your personal and health care decisions? Who would care for your minor children? How would you distribute your assets to your heirs? Would you prefer to spare your heirs the potential cost and hassles of the probate process? Would you like to minimize the impact of estate taxes … or maximize the impact of a charitable bequest? Is there someone in your family with special needs for whom you would like to provide? Is there someone who perhaps should not receive a great deal of (or any) money without some outside oversight?
These are just a few of the issues to consider when approaching the planning process. They are much more important than the “treasure hunt” for legal documents at this stage.