In my estate planning practice, it is not uncommon to meet with a new client who wants an estate plan prepared, but is a bit vague as to what should be included in that plan. Quite frequently, the initial conversation begins with the client saying something like, “I would like a will… or should I have a trust? Do I need anything else?” Actually, those are good questions to begin a discussion.
Most folks recognize that their estate plan should provide for the distribution of their assets upon their death. That, of course, is an essential element of an estate plan, but there is more to consider in a well-designed plan. Prior to meeting with your attorney for the first time you should also be thinking about such things as who you want to handle your affairs should you become incapacitated; whether you would want your doctor to keep you alive should you be near the point of death with little chance of recovery; who you want to have the authority to sign important legal papers for you if you are unavailable; and, who you would want to raise your children if you suddenly die. There is a wide variety of personal circumstances which impact estate planning, but let me offer the following as items you should consider even before you meet with a lawyer to discuss your own estate plan.
Should I have a will or a trust?
This is typically among the first questions posed by clients during an initial meeting. Many are aware that a trust will avoid probate, but that is true only if the trust is properly funded, meaning that all of their assets are transferred into the trust. Not every estate plan needs a trust, however, and it may not be necessary for you to incur the additional cost of having your lawyer prepare a trust, when a will is suitable for your needs. And, contrary to what some folks think, having a trust does not avoid estate taxes.
A trust may be the right choice for you, if it is unlikely that you will acquire more assets in the years ahead. What can often happen, however, is that folks will have a trust established and thereafter acquire new assets that they neglect to place in the trust. Then when they die the assets outside of the trust have to go through probate which defeats the intent of establishing a trust in the first place. So, before deciding upon a trust as the main element of your own estate plan, take some time to consider your future investment plans and major acquisitions.
There are some other advantages to a trust, which might make it the right choice for you. For example, should you become incapacitated, your trustee will be able to step in and manage your assets without having to seek a court appointed conservator. In that sense, a trust document is more all-encompassing and flexible than an ordinary will.
What else should I consider in my estate plan?
Estate planning isn’t just about deciding who gets your wealth when you die. It is also about making decisions as to what you want to happen should you become seriously ill or incapacitated.
Every estate plan should include an advance directive, which used to be called a living will. This document allows you to appoint a health care representative to make health care decisions for you, including end of life decisions, when you are unable to do so.
Similarly, we recommend that you give a durable power of attorney to a family member or trusted friend in order to allow your appointed agent to manage your financial and business affairs when you are unavailable or otherwise incapacitated. A durable power of attorney remains in effect so long as you are alive and should provide that it will be effective even in the event of your incapacity.
What about my bank accounts, life insurance and investment accounts?
Careful estate planning should include a review of all of your assets, including checking the beneficiary designations you have listed in your retirement plan and in regard to your investment and bank accounts. With such beneficiary designations, these assets will be transferred outside of the probate process to those persons you have previously designated as beneficiaries on these accounts. It is important that you review your beneficiary designations to ensure that your choice of beneficiaries is in accordance with your current intentions as to disposition of your estate.
A thorough review of your portfolio and consideration of the issues described above before meeting with your estate planning attorney will allow you to realize the maximum benefit from your meeting. It will also help your attorney to focus his or her discussion with you on aspects of the process that are most relevant to your goals and needs.