[This article was written by Tammy Weber, Managing Attorney with my law firm, Marshall, Parker and Weber]
Estate planning is a process that you use to protect your loved ones and your home and savings. You know you should do it, but where should you begin? How are you supposed to know what estate planning documents make sense for you?
It is hard to get started. Earlier in my law career in the mid- to late-1980s I was a federal judicial law clerk for the Honorable Louis C. Bechtle in Philadelphia. Each day there was a case to review or hear that would affect a person’s liberty, involve a significant fundamental right or encompass a dispute worth millions of dollars. It was challenging to begin the process of research that would lead to the ultimate court decision. Judge Bechtle would always say “the way to begin is to begin.” While simple, it was profound. Start somewhere.
Here are some suggestions for how you can begin the estate planning process.
1. Determine why you need an estate plan.
Think of your life and your estate planning as a puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle is a question that needs to be considered or a decision that needs to be made. Below are a few examples. Do you want to:
- Decide who gets your assets when you pass away?
- Name someone to take care of your minor children when you pass away?
- Name someone to handle your finances if you cannot?
- Spell out all of your medical treatment decisions in advance?
- Name someone to make your health care decisions if you cannot?
- Add new children, grandchildren or other family members to your existing documents?
- Organize your digital assets, such as passwords for online bill payments and email?
- Pay for nursing home care for a parent, spouse or loved one?
- Arrange in-home care for a parent, spouse or loved one?
- Prepare to pass your business to your children?
- Find out if you qualify for Veteran’s benefits?
- Have help handling the estate of a loved one who passed away?
- Learn how to get the most out of your gas royalties?
- Make sure your pet is taken care of when you pass away?
- Make sure my child’s social security income is not affected by an inheritance?
- Protect your child with special needs?
Use an online tool such as www.paelderlaw.com/helpmedecide to direct you to information about possible solutions.
2. Have the conversation(s) with your loved ones.
Life is full of many uncertainties, but planning ahead and talking with your family can be one of the greatest gifts you can give to those you love. It may be a conversation just with your spouse or significant other, or it could involve a conversation with your aging parent(s) and siblings. Be open about the decisions that have been made. Often parents are concerned about offending their children or becoming a burden to them. To the extent that you feel comfortable sharing your reasoning, the more information and explanations you can give your family while you are alive, the less resentment they will feel when they learn about your choices when you are gone.
Talking to your parents can be more difficult than talking to your children. They have always taken care of you, and now maybe it is time for you to help take care of them. It is important for your parents to understand you are trying to do what is best for them. If they become upset or agitated, drop the conversation and try again some other time.
3. Create a plan.
Just like no two people are alike, no two estate plans should be identical. Below are some common legal documents that may help you achieve your goals.
- Will – Signing your Will in the best way to ensure that everything in your estate will go where you want it to go. This is especially important if you have children from a prior marriage or relationship.
- Financial Power of Attorney – A Financial Power of Attorney will allow you to name someone to make financial decisions for you, pay your bills and write checks if you are unable to do so.
- Health Care Power of Attorney – If you were unable to make your own health care decisions one day, the person you name in your Health Care Power of Attorney can make decisions about your health care.
- Family Asset Protection Trust – This specific type of irrevocable trust is a “tried and true” way to protect your hard-earned assets and land from the cost of long-term care, divorce or creditors.
In addition, your assets that pass by beneficiary designations, such as life insurance, retirement accounts and annuity products as well as land ownership should be coordinated with your plan.
4. Revisit and adjust the plan, as needed.
Once you have an estate plan in place, you have created a foundation, but the plan should change as time goes on. Any significant changes in wealth, family dynamics or a death in the family are a reason to resume the conversation and update the plan. Remember, estate planning is an ongoing process.