Becoming comfortable with the estate planning process: How and why to get started, and what to do once your plan is set.

“Estate planning” — you’ve heard about it and know it’s something you should have in place. But when should you start and does it really apply to you?

Estate planning isn’t just for the elderly or rich. Still, 44% of Americans said the reason they didn’t start estate planning was because they were more focused on their current life and the essentials like groceries and bills.

A general rule is to start planning as soon as you have acquired assets—  a property, a car, children, or an inheritance.

It’s not easy to talk about. Planning for your eventual demise is a very emotional topic and, frankly, uncomfortable. Familiarizing yourself with the process and terminology will allow you to confidently set in place the best possible approach for your assets and your family. An attorney with estate planning experience can help you understand your available options in easy-to-digest terms.

When should you begin estate planning?

Many people think that estate plans are for someone else, not them. They may rationalize that they are too young or don’t have enough money saved to reap the tax benefits of a plan. That just isn’t the case. As soon as you have acquired any assets, you should start planning how they will be distributed should you become incapacitated or in the event of your death.

Estate plans don’t need to be complex. Some only include wills that confirm that assets should go to a spouse.

Not all states automatically designate the assets to surviving spouses when no will is left.

Once you start your planning process, make sure to keep it up to date in the event of changes, like becoming a grandparent or welcoming a new grandchild, a serious or terminal illness, or a change in relationship status.

Take ownership and decide who, when, and how they will receive your assets. There is simply no perfect time to plan for the unexpected. It’s never too early to start.

Loss Of Capacity

What if you become incompetent and unable to manage your own affairs? Without a plan, the courts will select the person to manage your affairs. With a plan, you pick that person through a power of attorney.

Minor Children

Who will raise your children if you die? Without a plan, a court will make that decision. With a plan, you are able to nominate the guardian of your choice.

Blended families.

What if your family is the result of multiple marriages? Without a plan, children from different marriages may not be treated as you would wish. With a plan, you determine what goes to your current spouse and children from a prior marriage or marriages.

Children with special needs.

When you don’t have a plan in place, a child with special needs risks being disqualified from receiving Medicaid or SSI benefits; they may be forced to use their inheritance to pay for care. With a plan, you can set up a supplemental needs trust that will allow the child to remain eligible for government benefits while using the trust assets to pay for non-covered expenses.

Dying without a Will

Without a set will, your assets pass to your heirs according to your state’s laws of intestacy (dying without a will). Having a will allows you to choose which family members receive your assets after you pass away. Without this prior preparation, it’s possible that the relatives who are chosen to take your assets are not the ones you would choose.

Keeping assets in the family

Without a plan, your child’s spouse may by default receive your money if an accident or illness, for example, results in your child’s premature death. If your child divorces his or her current spouse, half of your assets could go to the spouse. With a plan, you can set up a trust that ensures that your assets will stay in your family, passing to your grandchildren.

What you should know about estate planning

The process of estate planning allows the decedent, or the person who has passed, to control that appointment and decision process while they are alive and well. A legal professional can help ensure that set documents are legally binding, work with state and federal laws, and more importantly provides that assistance to your family in the event of disability or death. It’s an ongoing process to ensure that the documents reflect the decedent’s most current wishes.

You may also consider working with a Certified Financial Planner to help you navigate the nuances of your current and future finances.

The Real Meaning of “Estate”

An estate is a simple way to refer to the assets owned by a person (decedent) upon his or her death. Those assets include property, cash, any family valuables you want carried forward, insurance policies, and more.

Organizing your financial details and documents in once place allows for easy sorting, updating and provides eases your mind should any unexpected circumstances arise. Key financial details to pull together include:

  • Bank accounts – include savings accounts, checking accounts and certificates of deposit.
  • Retirement accounts –  individual retirement accounts (IRAs), broker dealers or mutual funds. Also, include employer pension accounts, 401(k) or 403(b) plans, and any other retirement benefit accounts.
  • Real estate – include titles or deeds, outstanding mortgages and, if applicable, rental agreements.
  • Insurance policies – life insurance, medical insurance and accident insurance. If applicable, include documentation on homeowner policies, automobile policies or burial policies.

Estate planning focuses on property and financial assets, but it can and should also include additional details such as life insurance, guardians for your children, transfer of business information and even family values like religion and education that you want your family to continue.

Donors, Beneficiaries, Grantors and Donees

Without a plan and the income replacement provided by life insurance, your family may be unable to maintain its current living standard. With a plan, life insurance can mean that your family will enjoy financial security.

When discussing beneficiaries and transferring of your assets, you’ll want to be familiar with the different actor roles:

  • Donor: A person or entity who gifts an asset to another person or entity.
  • Beneficiary: A person or entity that receives a benefit from an estate, trust or asset transfer vehicle.
  • Grantor: A person who transfers an asset to another person or entity.
  • Donee: A person or entity who receives a gifted asset from a donor.

Irrevocable Trusts, Living Trusts, Revocable Trusts & Wills

The following are different types of documents that become part of the foundation and guidebook for your assets.

  • Will: A legal document used to transfer assets upon a decedent”s death.
  • Trust: A legal arrangement created to facilitate the transfer of property to a trustee for the benefit of a beneficiary.
  • Living Trust: A trust established and operating during the trustor’s lifetime.
  • Irrevocable Trust: A trust in which the trustor has not reserved the right to revoke and cannot change the wording in the trust.
  • Revocable Trust: A trust in which the trustor reserves the right to revoke.

Death Probate & Decedent

Without a plan, your estate may be subject to delays and excess fees (depending on the state), and your assets will be a matter of public record. With a plan, you can structure things so that probate can be avoided entirely.

Guardians of the Person & the Estate

In the case that the court is involved with your estate, a guardian of the person or estate may be assigned. A Guardian of the Person is a court-appointed supervisor in charge of the care of a minor or incompetent person’’s physical well-being. Likewise, a Guardian of the Estate is a court-appointed person in charge of the care of a minor or incompetent person’s financial well-being.

Why should you get an estate planning attorney?

It is crucial to understand the way your estate plan works. Don’t hesitate to ask a prospective estate planning attorney questions that will help you decide if they’re the right choice for you.  An estate planning attorney can not only walk you through the process but explain how to keep your plan up to date, the impact of state and federal laws, the role of your beneficiaries, and ensure your wishes are executed properly.

It is not uncommon for participants to sign the estate documents and not really understand how the estate plan works for beneficiaries and how to maintain it. This can result in breakdown of your estate plan once transfers have been made or even legal problems should your beneficiaries be out of date.

Are you interested in creating an estate plan, but you’re not sure where to begin? We can help. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation to explore your options.