It is never too early to begin planning for you future. Saving for retirement is a great example of an investment people make in themselves, and in their futures. In addition to saving and investing, many people also choose to prepare for their futures by creating an estate plan in the form of a living trust or will. Estate planning may seem daunting to those who have not done it before, but this comprehensive estate planning checklist can give you an idea of what creating an estate plan may require.
Identify Your Goals
Before creating a trust or will, you should consider what your goals are for the rest of your life and for how your assets should be used when you are gone. Consider the different facets of your life, including family members, friends, financial decisions you wish to make during your lifetime, and what you anticipate owning upon your death. Having a well-visualized picture of what your potential estate may look like can help you begin the estate planning process with clear goals in mind.
Inventory Important Assets
While all assets you own are important, you should also consider creating a list of those you want to pay special attention to during the estate planning process. These assets might be heirloom family jewelry, antiques, real property, or even just items that hold a special meaning to you or someone you love. You do not need to make a list of everything you own. But you may wish to consider people in your life who you would want to give certain items to. This thought process can help you start connecting the dots between the assets you own and how those assets should be distributed upon your death.
Evaluate Your Debts
Debt is something most people need to consider when creating their estate plans. Debt can include credit cards, mortgages, and other loans you may have outstanding. It is important to consider debt when planning for your estate because certain debts are treated differently upon your passing. It is also important to know which debts will need to be paid off by your estate. This will impact the assets that will be remaining to distribute to your beneficiaries, as most debt is satisfied before beneficiary distributions are made. Understanding your debts will help you visualize who the various “takers” from your estate will be.
Select the People to Participate in Your Estate Plan
Although at first thought it might seem like an estate plan only impacts the person creating it, this is not the case in practice. Estate plans, trusts or wills alike, will also involve other people in your life to serve as trusted decision makers, trustees, executors, or in other roles you may determine. It is important to consider who you want to be involved in your estate plan, and what role or roles you envision them in. Children are often a first choice for people who have families, but it is also not uncommon to see friends or licensed professionals chosen to serve in these roles. Whoever you want to serve a role in your estate plan should be a trusted and responsible person you can count on to make sure your wishes are carried out. You do not need to have determined who will serve in every role in your estate plan before you begin the process. Your attorney can also assist you in considering the people in your life who may be a good fit. It is also important to note that you can always change the individuals named in your estate plan in the future.
Consider Your Beneficiaries
Beneficiaries are the people or institutions that will receive your assets from your estate after your death. As the grantor, you have the utmost flexibility to determine who should be entitled to receive from your estate. Your beneficiaries can be family members, but you can also leave your estate to anyone you choose.
Consult With an Estate Planning Attorney
Selecting a competent attorney is crucial when beginning the estate planning process. The attorneys at Weiner Law are ready to assist you in creating the estate plan to ensure all your goals are met. Our attorneys can help you determine which type of plan is best suited to your needs. We will also create comprehensive plans to account for situations that may arise during your life and after your death.
Review Your Documents Regularly
Once you have executed an estate plan, you should keep your documents stored in a safe place where you can access them as needed. It is important to review your estate plan every time a major life event happens, or at least every three years. Major life events might include marriages, divorces, new children being born, significant purchases made, or other things. Keeping your estate plan updated and current is the best way to ensure that your documents accurately reflect your life at every new stage.
What Documents Are Typically Included in an Estate Plan?
Estate plans are totally customizable. Generally, we include the following documents in an estate plan, in addition to other routine documents.
- Trust and Will: Depending on a client’s needs and goals, an estate plan will include either a trust or a will or both. These documents provide in part for the distribution of the client’s estate upon the client’s death. This document serves as the primary component of the estate plan. Within it you will typically find any of the gifts a client wishes to make from their property upon their death, a list of the included family members or other beneficiaries, and the rules the client sets out regarding how their assets will be allocated.
- Durable Power of Attorney for Finance: This important document allows clients to name a trusted person who will manage their finances if they are ever unable to do so during their lifetime. The kinds of scenarios contemplated by this document include sudden incapacity or illness, among other things.
- Advance Health Care Directive: Similar to a Durable Power of Attorney for Finance, an Advance Health Care Directive also allows a client to name a trusted person to help during times of incapacity or illness. However, an Advance Health Care Directive names a person or persons who will help the client make medical decisions specifically. This document, as well as the rest of the estate plan, is completely customizable to capture all your health care wishes for your lifetime and at death.
- Guardians for Minor Children: If you have minor children, we can also help you nominate potential guardians for them. We create comprehensive minor guardianship documents that allow parents to name trusted people to care for their children if they were ever unavailable. This includes the option to create more personalized documents outlining parents’ goals for their children’s upbringing. Naming potential guardians for minor children is an important step in estate planning for families.
- Nominations Summary: It is also important to have quick and easy access to your estate plan, should you ever need. We provide clients with an easy-to-understand summary of everyone involved in their estate plan, from trustees or executors to potential guardians for minor children. This document will serve as a useful quick reference so you are always informed of the different roles within your estate plan.
What are the risks of estate planning?
Generally, there are no risks to creating an estate plan. Most estate planning documents are amendable and/or revocable, which gives clients the opportunity to begin protecting their assets now and make any changes necessary down the line as they arise. The general goal of estate planning is to avoid your family having to deal with the probate court process and control how your assets are held or distributed after your death. A very common way people achieve this goal is by creating a revocable living trust.
A common misunderstanding of how trusts function is the assumption that a trust is a wholly separate legal entity in and of itself once it is created. With this misunderstanding often follows the notion that any property transferred into the trust is no longer owned by the trust creators, known as the “grantors.” This is not the case. Even once the grantors have transferred their assets (such as a home or bank account) into the name of the trust, the grantors are still the legal owners of the assets with the right to control those assets. Because the grantors are still the legal owners of the trust assets, there is no risk that their assets could be transferred elsewhere or to other individuals.
Another common misunderstanding is that a trust cannot be changed once it is signed. While creating an irrevocable trust is an option, the more common approach is a revocable living trust. As the name implies, a revocable living trust can be fully revoked at any time the grantor(s) wish. A revocable living trust can also be amended at any point to modify the existing terms or add new terms. The flexibility of a revocable living trust eliminates the risks that would come with creating a document that cannot be changed in the future.
If a trust seems like it might not be the best fit for your estate, clients also have the option to create a will plan. A will serves very specific purposes for certain clients whose assets, family structure, or estate goals warrant it. But for any individual whose estate is likely to be worth more than approximately $160,000* at the time of their death, a will plan comes with its own risks. Because the small estate limit is only about $160,000, estates worth more than that will have to go through the probate process if the grantor only created a will (as opposed to a trust). This is because wills do not help assets avoid probate like a trust does. Therefore, with a will, there is a risk of executors and beneficiaries having to endure the long and costly probate process if a grantor’s estate was only disposed of via will. It is always best to discuss the numerous estate planning strategies with a professional to determine which type of plan is best for you.
*Approximately $160,000 is the small estate limit as of October 2021.
Contact Weiner Law for All Your Estate Planning Needs
At Weiner Law, we are prepared to guide you through the estate planning process in the easiest manner possible. It is always our goal to help clients’ wishes become reality. We are available to discuss your specific planning needs.