Answers to five common questions about estate plans | Burns & Levinson LLP
Estate planning can be confusing for many. It can be daunting to contemplate your own demise, but there are many reasons why having an estate plan is important. An estate plan can avoid placing a greater burden on your family and friends. Estate plans also ensure that your assets end up in good hands after your death.
It can seem overwhelming to plan the distributions of your assets after your death or in the event of incapacity. It is often difficult to determine how to start the process. Here are five common questions — and their answers — to help shed some light.
- What is an estate plan and why do I need one?
An estate plan is a comprehensive plan that you put in place to prepare for the distribution of your assets upon your death. People assume you have to be near the end of your life to need an estate plan, but estate plans can do much more than plan for your death. Estate plans can also be designed to protect you and your assets if you become incapacitated and your family and friends have to make critical decisions for you.
Everyone’s estate plan goals are different, but they’re an important part of planning for incapacity, avoiding estate taxes, and streamlining the distribution of assets upon your death. Estate plans help prevent disputes over your assets after you die. If you die without an estate plan, your family members will be responsible for assigning your property, paying estate taxes, and navigating the probate process.
- What happens if I die without an estate plan?
If you were to die without an estate plan, a court would decide the distribution of your assets. Each state has laws to determine who receives an individual’s property if that individual dies without an estate plan. However, these default rules may not be in your best interest. An estate plan is an easy way to ensure that your property is distributed according to your wishes.
An estate plan can also be designed to avoid going through probate court to administer your estate. Probate is the processing of filing your death certificate and various petitions to ask the court to help you distribute your assets to your loved ones. This can take months or even years, depending on the size of your estate. If you die without an estate plan, your family will have no choice but to follow the guidelines and procedures of the probate court. However, if you have an estate plan in place, your estate can avoid probate and your assets distributed quickly without court assistance.
Many estate planning documents also provide for incapacity during your lifetime. Without these essential documents, your family members could also be tasked with making critical end-of-life decisions on your behalf without knowing your end-of-life care preferences.
- Why do I need anything more than a will?
Wills are an essential part of estate planning, but there are many other documents available to help you design your estate plan to meet your specific financial needs and planning goals. For example, trusts minimize estate taxes and protect assets from creditors during your lifetime. Trusts also allow your family members to avoid going through probate court to manage your affairs after your death.
Each individual has different needs and goals when it comes to end-of-life planning. Documents such as Lasting Powers of Attorney and Health Care Powers of Attorney can be essential tools in planning for your incapacity. These documents ensure that you designate someone to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf if you are ever unable to make them yourself. A durable power of attorney gives the person you designate access to your assets so that they can manage your financial affairs if you become incapacitated. A health care proxy allows your designated person to make medical decisions for you and ensure that your doctors respect your wishes.
- Who are the trustees and how do I choose mine?
Trustees are the people you name in your estate plan to manage your estate after your death. Under your will, this would be your personal representative (or executor), and under your trust, this would be your trustee.
When choosing your personal representative or trustee, it is important to consider your relationship with that person and how they would manage your assets after your death. Acting as a fiduciary can often be a big responsibility, so you need to choose people who have the time and ability to manage your affairs.
You can also appoint a proxy under your durable power of attorney and a health care agent under your health care power of attorney to make decisions for you if you become incapacitated. These people should be people you trust to honor your wishes regarding your financial assets and medical decisions.
- What happens if I change my mind about my estate plan?
Aside from a few specific estate planning documents, estate plans are generally revocable and changeable during your lifetime as long as you are competent. Changes can often be made without having to rewrite the entire estate plan. Therefore, estate planning shouldn’t be something you have to think about, but an ongoing part of your financial planning.
Your needs, goals and relationships will change throughout your life, so it’s important to remember that estate plans are not set in stone and can be changed by working with your estate planning attorney.
Estate planning is an important process for financial and end-of-life planning. The process can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Consulting an estate planning attorney is a great way to make sure your estate plan meets your goals.