Like many people, you may assume that when the inevitable happens, your property and financial assets will be given to the nearest, dearest relative. In reality, this may not be the case. Unless you prepare yourself and your loved ones now, your assets may not be distributed as you would have intended.
If you haven't already, make out a will. If not for yourself, then think of your loved ones. A will can help guarantee that your wishes are met and lend your family peace-of-mind, avoiding confusion or conflicts at an already difficult time. Wills can be as simple as a list of your wishes or a large document setting up trusts, trustees, lifetime gifts and so on.
Before consulting an attorney, gather the following information to help ensure a successful meeting:
- Summarized data regarding you, your family and intended beneficiaries, including complete names, addresses, social security numbers and dates of birth.
- Your current will(s); listing of assets, liabilities and ownership; beneficiary designations, such as life insurance policies and retirement plans; and deeds indicating how your property is titled. If the actual documents are not available, a description of each is sufficient.
- Have a clear understanding of who you want to receive your assets, including how and when. Determine your executor, guardians (if necessary), power of attorney and power of attorney for health care.
- Be prepared to discuss decisions regarding how to handle health care concerns.
A will dictates, according to you, who will receive your money, property and family heirlooms. It also allows you to make charitable donations, appoint guardians for your children and name an executor of your will, the person who will handle the details of paying debts and settling affairs. Without a will, your estate distribution will be left to the government under the law of intestacy, or death without a will.
Assets within retirement plans, annuities, life insurance and trusts are awarded to the beneficiaries named within those arrangements. However, it's a good idea to review and update the beneficiary designations of these plans to ensure your wishes are met.
Granting durable power of attorney gives the person you specify authority to act on your behalf in the case of an accident or sudden illness. It allows that person to handle personal affairs, like signing checks, preparing tax returns and making retirement elections. Selecting someone you trust is essential, although the power may be revoked and designated to another person at any time. It's important to execute a durable power of attorney now, as no one knows when incapacity or disability will occur.
Getting durable power of attorney for health care allows the person you specify to act on your behalf with regard to health care decisions when unable to do so yourself. Be sure to thoroughly discuss your written requests with the individual to verify that he or she is able to carry them out accordingly.
Remember to update the documents when major life changes occur, such as marriage, divorce or the birth of a child. It's also important to let loved ones know where they can find your documents—you may even want to provide them with a copy.
There are many reasons to prepare an estate plan. Most importantly, it's your voice to express wishes for your family and your assets. It's your chance to develop a personalized plan to care for loved ones.