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What are the Basics of Estate Planning?

Every adult needs to have an estate plan, regardless of how large or small their estate is. The pandemic prompted many Americans to realize this, according to a recent article from Forbes, “What Is Estate Planning? A Guide And FAQ For Investors.”

Estate planning starts with a last will and testament and key documents including a Power of Attorney, trusts and medical directives. Creating an estate plan allows a family to protect investments and other assets during disability or illness and ensure the distribution of property after death. At the same time, taxes and probate are minimized or avoided.

Estate planning provides many benefits to the individual and their families. One of these is relieving stress and uncertainty during a difficult time.

Estate planning also addresses planning for the care of minor children in the event both parents pass away.

A last will is a legal document addressing property, assets and investments and their distribution after the owner’s death. If there is no will, the state’s laws determine how the estate will be distributed. A will is also used to name a guardian for minor children, so every young family should have a will. Without a will naming a guardian, the court will make decisions about the children’s guardian, possibly appointing a person the parents might not have chosen.

Trusts are outstanding estate planning tools used to solve a wide variety of planning problems. There are Marital Trusts used to pass assets to a spouse without incurring estate taxes and Bypass Trusts used to hold assets for a surviving spouse but structured so that when the surviving spouse passes, the assets go to the named beneficiaries—typically children from a prior marriage.

Trusts are also used to make donations to charities. Some are created to make a gift and create a steady income stream for beneficiaries.

Your estate planning attorney can recommend which type of trust works best for you.

Every adult should have a Power of Attorney in place. This gives someone the legal power to act on behalf of another person if they cannot act for themselves. The POA can be drafted to be broad, allowing the agent to act on all matters, or limited so the agent can only perform specific tasks.

Medical directives are perhaps the hardest to contemplate, since no one likes to imagine themselves at death’s door. These are also critical to give family members and healthcare providers information about what a person wants in the event of extreme illness. A Heath Care Proxy allows another person to make critical decisions for you.

Beneficiary designations are often ignored and can undo an estate plan. Let’s say that you have a life insurance policy purchased several decades ago, and in the intervening years, you divorced and remarried. Who is the beneficiary named on the life insurance policy? If it’s your ex-spouse, they’ll get an unexpected windfall when you die. All accounts with beneficiary designations should be reviewed every year or two to ensure that they are still appropriate.

Estate planning may seem daunting. However, working with an experienced estate planning attorney will make the process easier and ensure that your wishes are carried out and your family will be protected.

Reference: Forbes (November 28, 2023) “What Is Estate Planning? A Guide And FAQ For Investors”

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