Consider it a smart way to take control of the people you care about and the assets you have.
If the term “estate planning” conjures images of Mike Bloomberg, Bill Gates, or Thurston Howell, depending on your age, reconsider. The thought that estate planning is an exercise limited to the very wealthy or the elderly is a common misconception that could prevent you from thinking about what you own, what you want done with it, and who you want to have it later. More importantly, if you don’t make plans, your money and possessions may remain in limbo while court battles, costs, taxes and family feuds drain the value—monetary and otherwise—for a long time. Estate planning consists of more than money; it’s about people, it’s about a will, health care decisions, life insurance beneficiaries, selecting a guardian, and more.
Contrary to popular belief, everyone in your life has a valid reason to do participate in estate planning to some extent. The significant people in your life—from spouse to children, parents, and even ex-spouses, among others—are the reason to plan and update. This will help everyone avoid hassles and unexpected consequences later. Younger generations with children, such as Millennials, should plan for the often-unexpected and untimely end of life issues. Tackling these issues when you’re young and healthy is the best time to do it—when there are no stressful decisions to be made and nothing is time sensitive or critical. You’ll be able to plan with a clear mind.
Basic Issues to Consider At Any Age and Financial Stage of Life
At some point, at any age of your life with or without warning, your health may become an issue. Having a health care directive in place with the right decision-maker can make a difference. Perhaps you want to make sure it’s not your ex-spouse. Or, perhaps your originally named power of attorney (POA) has moved away and is unable to take care of your affairs as your life changes. Additionally, naming and or updating/changing the beneficiaries of your insurance policies is an important exercise (that should be reviewed regularly). Beyond the practical matters of deciding who receives a large payout after you have passed, your own situation, or relationships, or feelings about your named beneficiaries may change.
Your car, your cash, and your credit card bills. While the selling of your car or the payment of your bills is no longer your concern, the reality of how that happens—including who manages it and who gets the proceeds—becomes a public and probated matter. Without an estate plan in place, the hassle and the ensuing litigation among family members can be traumatic.
Avoiding the tax man is a worthwhile pursuit, even assuming you don’t have an estate in excess of the $11.4 million estate tax threshold. This is too often where the discussion of a trust begins. However, reducing taxes is not the only reason that this particular planning instrument is used.
Understandably, for those of a certain age and status, mitigating a potentially enormous estate tax burden is a primary goal. Also, many homeowners believe that the goal of long-term care planning is to protect savings (by avoiding paying them to a nursing home) while simultaneously qualifying for nursing home Medicaid benefits. (A separate topic.)
Tools You Can Use to Control Your Life
By definition, a trust is when one person (trustee) holds title to property for the benefit of another person (the beneficiary). A person called the settlor (or trustor) creates the trust and puts the property in the trust. There are various types of trusts that serve different purposes. A living trust is an essential tool.
You and Your Children, At Any Age
For some, selecting a guardian may be easy. For others, this make be fraught. That’s why making the decision at a time when things in life are relatively calm and uncomplicated is the best time—your emotions or feeling that you’re pressed for time won’t cloud your judgement. Similarly, when deciding who would serve as guardian of your child(ren), it’s also prudent to consider who may safely oversee any trusts that are created. For some families the decision is to have the children’s guardian oversee the trust, while for others they want to keep the two matters separate to prevent any conflicts.
If you have minor children a trust should be established until they reach the age of majority, or another age selected by the testator (the person making the will, that’s you!). At the time of creating the trust you would also appoint a trustee to handle the assets of the trust for the benefit of your minor children until it is to be given to the children.
A Critical But Common Misunderstanding
Creating a trust is not synonymous with giving away or giving up control on all you own. One single person could be the trustor/settlor, trustee, and beneficiary. For example, one person may create a trust and put property in it, make himself the trustee, and use the property for his own benefit. In that case he would be the settlor, trustee, and beneficiary all at the same time. Or all three roles can be held by different people. Speaking with your estate planning attorney will help you make the right decision for you and your family.
How to do It? Where to begin?
As the adage goes, the best time to start planning for the future is now. As noted above, there are many decisions that you can begin to make right now, before any documents are drafted—and this is a good place to start. Online, there are many sources that provide guidelines to consider. After doing your preliminary research you can rely on estate and planning professionals to help you answer a myriad of questions and scenarios that you cannot, or do not, want to imagine. While providing objective input, an experienced professional will then design a plan that anticipates your concerns, reflects your wishes, and maximizes tax savings opportunities for any tax bracket. The timeframe can be thirty to sixty days or longer, depending on the complexity of the issues and assets at hand.
Your investment of time and thought, guided by a legal professional, insures that plans for your future are sound and will be properly executed. And, we have found that your loved ones benefit in more ways than you might imagine.
This information focuses on the needs of an individual’s estate plan. Estate plans are also a prudent for businesses as well as non-profit organizations. For example, consider whether and how to transfer a business to your children. The earlier you plan and help them prepare, the more able to maintain the business operation.