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The Right Documents for Estate Planning

Make sure that you have the right documents in place to protect your family and yourself.

Having a properly prepared estate plan, that includes all the important documents, including a will and power of attorney, is one of the most important ways to protect your family and yourself. Despite this fact, many adults still neglect to take care of this important task, reports Consumer Reports in its article “8 Essential Steps for Estate Planning.”

A survey from Caring.com showed that as many as 60% of adults don’t have estate planning documents. When they asked families with young children, fewer than one in ten have even designated a guardian to take care of their children, if both parents should die.

What happens when there’s no planning in place? Even the simplest things become more complicated, and complicated things become financial and legal nightmares. When there’s an emergency and decisions need to be made, the entire family is subjected to more stress and costs than would otherwise be necessary.

Here are the eight steps you need to take, right now, to protect your family:

  1. Get the professional help you need. The change to the tax law may or may not impact your family and your estate plan, but you won’t know until you sit down with an estate planning attorney. Trying to do this online, may seem like a simpler way, but you will not have the same peace of mind as when you sit down with an experienced attorney—and one who knows your state’s laws.
  2. Create a will. This is a legal document that explains how you want your assets to be distributed after you die. It names an executor to carry out your instructions. If you have minor children, this is an especially important document, since it is used to name their guardian. If you have no will when you die (called dying “intestate”), then the laws of your state determine how your assets are distributed and who rears your children. Depending on where you live, your spouse might not automatically inherit everything. 
  3. Discuss whether you need a Revocable Living Trust. In most states, when you pass away, your estate goes through a process called “probate.” The courts basically review your estate plan and determine whether everything looks right. The problem is that your will becomes a public document—and so does information about your assets. Some people prefer to keep their lives private by transferring assets to a revocable living trust, which distributes assets according to your instructions at your death. Titles to the assets must be changed, so they are “owned” by the trust. This is known as “funding” the trust. You still retain complete control of your assets, since you are the trustee. However, if you fail to retitle assets, the estate goes through probate. You will also still need a will to protect your minor children.
  4. Review your beneficiaries. Whether you remember it or not, when you open many different kinds of accounts—banking, investment—you assign a beneficiary to receive the assets upon your death. Your will does not override the beneficiary designation. Therefore, if you haven’t changed your life insurance beneficiary, for instance, and your ex-wife is still named on the document, she’ll get the entire proceeds of the life insurance policy when you die. This is a very important task. 
  5. Have a Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) created. This is something that protects you, while you are living. If you should become incapacitated, having a durable power of attorney in place will allow that person to manage your financial affairs. Make sure the institutions that have your accounts accept your attorneys’ POA form; you may need to get the one that the institution uses.
  6. Don’t forget the Advance Directive. This is also known as a Living Will. It explains your wishes for medical procedures, if you are unable to communicate and explains what you want for end-of-life care. Make sure that your family members know that you have such a document and keep it accessible in case of an emergency.
  7. Pick a Healthcare Proxy. The Healthcare Proxy, also known as the Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare, names someone to convey your healthcare wishes. It should include a HIPAA release clause. This allows medical personnel to release your medical records and speak with the named person about your care.
  8. Get it all organized. Think of this step as creating a user’s manual for yourself. All these plans won’t do any good, unless your loved ones know they exist and know where to locate them. Don’t put your estate planning documents and records in a bank safe deposit box, in case it is sealed on death. Your attorney will likely have an original, and you should have your original in a fire-proof safe in a secure location in your home. 

Reference: Consumer Reports (Oct. 24, 2018) “8 Essential Steps for Estate Planning”

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