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Estate Planning 101

Diverse Family

Estate planning may not be something you think about every day but as you get older and accumulate assets, it should become a part of your overall financial plan. You may have started out with nothing, but now you’ve got a house, maybe a vacation home, rental properties, vehicles, precious heirlooms that were passed down through the family, and investment accounts. The more you accumulate, the more you have to safeguard so that everything makes it into the right hands after you pass. Hopefully, after considering the information outlined in this article, you can begin to move forward with a plan or tune up the documents you already have in place.

 

WHO NEEDS AN ESTATE PLAN?

There are aspects of estate planning that can apply to everyone—like letting a family member know where they can find your social media passwords in the event of an unexpected passing or keeping an updated financial spreadsheet handy so your executor isn’t spending hours going through filing cabinets. Other more costly, or complex, components of an estate plan may be more appropriate for individuals who have accumulated significant assets over their lifetime and have specific wishes for the distribution of those assets.

 

WHAT IS AN ESTATE PLAN?

Everything you own at your death becomes your “estate.” Having an estate plan means giving specific direction as to what you’d like done with those assets.

Most experts agree there are four primary documents related to estate planning, these Include the following:

 

1. Living Will

What is it? A living will directs your assets to specific people or charities after you pass away. It is a basic bequest of your assets and therefore less expensive to establish than a living trust and more suited for people without large estates or complicated family dynamics. With a will, your estate passes through probate court and becomes part of the public record. This process takes, on average, six months to two years to complete and is estimated to cost between 3% and 8% of the total assets value.

When should I start? When an individual starts a family and has dependents, a will can be used to appoint guardians for their minor children. Further, when a person begins to acquire financial and physical assets a living will helps ensure they would pass through to the desired heirs.

 

2. Living Revocable Trust

What is it? Much like a will, a living revocable trust also provides instructions for the distribution of your assets upon passing but adds additional protections, privacy, and control. Trusts act as both a contract and a container for assets and you will be required to pay taxes on the assets within it each year. Trusts are more costly to draft and it is often necessary to hire an attorney to ensure the document will have the effect you desire. Trusts allow you to retain control of all assets during your lifetime and they provide additional control over how your assets are spent/transferred after your passing. Trusts also help your heirs avoid the costly, public, and time-consuming process of probate court.

When should I start? A living trust becomes useful when assets reach a certain point or family dynamics become more complex. As an example, if someone has children from a previous marriage and wants to ensure they receive their portion of the estate a trust could be structured to provide a legal framework that makes that happen, all the while protecting the privacy of the estate from probate court.

 

3. Power of Attorney (POA)

What is it? Your power of attorney appoints an agent to act on your behalf if you become incapacitated or are unable to appear (where?) in person. You can give the agent broad legal authority to conduct all types of business on your behalf, or narrow the scope of the agent’s authority. For example, you may allow them to make financial decisions only. Standard POAs end when you become incapacitated, but a “durable POA” remains in force to allow your agent to handle your affairs when you’re no longer able to conduct your own business.

When should I start? Oftentimes active-duty military will establish a POA before deploying overseas so they can conduct business state-side. A POA is also a part of incapacitation planning, business continuity planning, and can be helpful for business people who are traveling frequently and unable to be present for transactions that require their signature. If any of these situations apply to you, consider adding this designation to your financial or healthcare strategy.

 

4. Advance Healthcare Directive

What is it? This document, also known as a healthcare power of attorney (HCPA), assigns a healthcare agent to an individual, also known as a proxy. Your healthcare proxy can communicate with your doctor(s) to ensure your wishes are known with regards to life-saving care and end-of-life choices. This can take a huge burden from already stressed family members and ensures that your treatment preferences are honored.

When should I start? At age 18, it becomes prudent to establish an advance healthcare directive since accidents can happen at any time.

WHY DOES AN ESTATE PLAN MATTER?

A properly designed estate plan shifts the pressure of distributing your assets away from your family members, directs your end of life medical care, preserves your privacy by bypassing expensive and public probate court, and can speed up the process of “settling your estate.” The complexity and value of your estate will determine what level of planning you should consider. Some aspects of estate planning seem complicated which is why there are specialists who can guide you through the process and help you determine which steps are right for you.

 

HOW DO I START MY ESTATE PLAN?

Before you meet with an estate planning professional, you can get the process started by collecting information and taking some basic steps.

  • If you’re a Vermont resident, you can work with the Vermont Ethics Network to establish a healthcare directive at no cost. Be sure and sign this in front of two disinterested witnesses and have it notarized. Then, send one to your primary care provider and an appointed healthcare agent, and keep a hard copy with the rest of the documents listed below.
  • Make an inventory of your physical assets. Include serial numbers, locations, vehicle identification numbers, or other identifying or pertinent information. You could note who each item should be given to on this document as well.
  • Create a spreadsheet of your current liabilities (bills, other regular payments) and debt (loans, credit cards, etc.). Include creditor details, account numbers, and contact information. Add a tab at the bottom of your spreadsheet and include information about your financial accounts with similar details. Include beneficiary designations for your investment accounts, life insurance, and IRAs.
  • Record policy numbers and details for any insurance policies like homeowner’s, life, long-term care, or disability. Keep these files organized and be sure you let a trusted family member or trustee know where they are located.
  • Create a letter of instruction for the executor/surviving family members that details your wishes for specific possessions and outlines your celebration of life.
  • Do not forget about your digital assets! Platforms like Facebook and Google allows users to decide ahead of time what should be done if you remain inactive for certain periods of time. Should your Facebook page become a permanent digital memorial or be taken down and archived?

Once you have completed this process, you will be ready to have a productive meeting with your estate planning professional! Having a current spreadsheet with your physical assets, financial assets, and liabilities will jump start the conversation and save you valuable time.

You may want to start the conversation with your financial advisor. They can assess your whole financial picture, helping you set realistic goals as they relate to your core financial needs. “Legacy” or estate planning is one of those core needs and a financial advisor can help guide you toward a vision of what that can look like and connect you with the necessary resources.

 

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