What is an estate plan?
When you hear the words “estate planning,” you probably imagine immense wealth and old money — as in tycoons and socialites who spend their days sipping mint juleps on the polo grounds. What you’re probably not thinking is that this is something you’d ever have to deal with yourself.
But the reality is anyone over the age of 18 could benefit from a little estate planning 101. That’s because estate plans are about more than how much money you have — they help ensure that your wishes for yourself, your family and your assets are carried out in the event of your illness or death.
What's included in an estate plan?
But what exactly is in an estate plan, anyway? Here's an estate planning checklist with five key things to include.
Estate plans are about more than how much money you have — they help ensure that your wishes are carried out.
A will or trust
A will or trust is an essential part of an estate plan. A last will and testament is a document that spells out how you want to divvy up your property and assets when you die. It should also include who you appoint as guardian of your minor children, other dependents or pets; as well as any specific instructions for their care. A trust accomplishes the same thing, along with appointing a trustee to carry out your wishes.
But there is a major difference between the two: A will has to go through probate, which means it must go through court proceedings in order to be executed, and it becomes public record. A trust, meanwhile, can avoid probate and is privately handled. A trust can also take effect before you pass away, which means you can serve as your own trustee while you’re alive and then appoint someone else to take over after your death.
It’s possible to pass along assets outside of a will if you’ve designated beneficiaries to your various financial accounts — including bank, brokerage and retirement accounts, as well as life insurance policies.
Because beneficiary forms trump what you put in a will, it’s really important to make sure you keep your designations up to date. If your situation changes through divorce, remarriage or the death of a beneficiary, update your beneficiaries as soon as possible to ensure that your wishes are followed. In many cases, you can split your assets between more than one, or name a secondary beneficiary in the event the first person you named passes away before you do.
One heads up if you’re dealing with non-retirement financial accounts: Their version of a beneficiary form will probably be called a transfer on death (TOD) or payable on death (POD) form. Although the labeling might be different, the goal is the same: to name who should get the money in your account after your death.
Durable powers of attorney
A power of attorney allows you to appoint an individual to act on your behalf when you’re unable to state your wishes due to illness or injury. You can appoint a single person to handle everything, or you can designate a different person to handle different situations. For example, you might want your spouse to be your agent under a health care power of attorney, while a money-savvy sibling acts as your agent under a financial power of attorney. It’s also a good idea to have backup agents named in your powers of attorney in case your first choice is unable or unwilling to act.
A living will
A living will is a set of instructions that outlines what kinds of medical treatment you would want — or do not want — if you were ever incapacitated. For instance, if you were to fall into a coma, a living will would detail whether or not you wish to be kept on life support.
A living will is usually paired with a health care power of attorney, sometimes called a health care proxy. These documents together are called your advance health care directive. It’s important to set them up because they can help appease arguments within your family over how to care for you during a stressful situation.
Letter of intent
A letter of intent is, well, exactly what it sounds like: a letter left to the executor of your will that provides an overview of your wishes for your assets and your family after your death, as well as any details you want to relay for your funeral or burial.
It doesn’t replace a will or trust because it’s not a legally binding document. Rather, it’s a supplement to it that adds a personal touch because it was written by you. You can use your letter of intent to relay not only your logistical wishes but also your more emotional ones, such as the types of values you hope to see your family carry on after your death.
Maintaining your estate plan
Once you’ve got all your estate planning documents in order, don’t assume that you can set it and forget it. Your decisions for your assets and your health might change over time, or as you go through major life events. So check in on your estate plan periodically to make sure it still reflects your wishes and values.
This article is not intended as legal or tax advice. Taxpayers should seek advice based on their particular circumstances from an independent tax advisor.