Procrastination is often the biggest enemy of estate planning!

We’ve all heard stories like this: A couple is about to head out on a prolonged business/pleasure trip involving considerable air travel. Panic sets in five days before their departure when it dawns on them that they don’t have Wills. Though immediate outreach to their attorney may enable them to get documents drafted and executed before they leave, this scenario is hardly ideal.  Harried or rushed actions can result in improper or faulty planning, which in turn may lead to family misunderstandings and disputes, assets going into the wrong hands, court cases, and the corresponding expense in legal fees and/or taxes.

As the saying goes, there’s no time like the present, even when planning for events likely to occur in the distant future. The New Year is the perfect time to get started or review a plan you already have to make sure it is on track.

Wherever you are in your estate planning process, our eight-point New Year’s checklist will help you get off on the right foot.

1. Make an appointment with an experienced estate planning attorney

There’s no better way to get the wheels turning than to sit down with an attorney experienced in estate planning. In this initial visit, your attorney will familiarize you with all the issues you must consider.

Estate planning is serious business and far more than a last-minute scramble to execute a Will. Its goal is to ensure the seamless transfer of assets to your heirs. It also safeguards your assets and the care you receive during times of critical illness if and when you cannot advocate for yourself. Estate planning takes considerable thought, important family conversations and the painstaking development of a plan geared to your unique family situation.

2. Take inventory

Assimilating information on your assets, tangible and intangible, is critical. This means listing what they are and how they are held. Some of these assets will pass to your survivors under your Will, others will pass to beneficiaries outside of your Will.

Tangible Assets include Real Property, land and whatever is built on it, typically your house, and Personal Property, which includes your physical possessions: jewelry, art and antiques and other collectibles; television sets, computers and other electronics. These will be just some of the items on the list.

Intangible assets include the things you own on paper: bank accounts, stocks, bonds, insurance policies, and retirement accounts (IRA’s). Items like bank accounts and stocks and bonds in a brokerage account likely will pass through your Will or to a joint account holder. Items like your insurance policy, IRA or 401(k) already have named beneficiaries and will pass to your survivors outside of your Will regardless of what your Will dictates.  Reviewing these distinctions is a KEY piece of crafting an appropriate estate plan.

3. Get organized

Getting organized is another vital step. It requires that you create a spreadsheet that itemizes all of the above items, again both tangible and intangible. Make copies of deeds and mortgage documents related to real estate, make copies and place originals and copies in a safe place. Ideally, your estate attorney will retain the original and a trusted designee named in a legal document will securely retain the other.

All documents should be recorded on a spreadsheet which accurately identifies the institution or institutions in which an asset is held and account numbers and passwords to the accounts, and contact information for the representative in the institution who handles your account. It is imperative that your estate attorney and the designated fiduciaries have copies of these spreadsheets or knows where to find them.

If you have a safety deposit box that holds important documents or information, make certain your attorney and survivors know the box number and in which bank the box is located. It is advisable to provide your attorney and your designees an extra key.

Note: Once you and your attorney have actually developed a plan, you will have created a Will, Durable Power of Attorney, Living Will and Advanced (Healthcare) Directive, essential documents which may be held in your safety deposit box and/or with your attorney as well as with other fiduciaries and designees.

4. Designate Fiduciaries (Financial), Healthcare Proxy and Create the Necessary Documents

Fiduciary roles refer to any person or institution that has the power to act on your behalf in situations in which you are no longer capable of acting or advocating for yourself and following your death. Plus, any adult can serve as your Healthcare Proxy. Fiduciaries can assume many roles in your estate, and, depending on a particular fiduciary designation, can act either before or after your death…or in both situations.

The law stipulates that your fiduciaries be legally competent individuals over 18 years of age and capable of managing their own affairs. But that’s where the requirements stop and where your careful thought and good judgement come in. Because these positions require the utmost honesty, loyalty and trustworthiness, the individuals you choose must be able to set aside their own personal inclinations and motivations to act in a manner consistent with your financial and health goals. Plus, if you have children who are minors, it is wise to appoint a guardian who will parent in a manner consistent with your parenting style and love your children as you would.

Each role requires a different skill set. To choose the most appropriate fiduciary, align the strengths and characteristics of the person you want to designate with the functions required for that position.  It is also advisable to have an alternate or backup in case logistically there is a problem with the primary person being available when it’s time to serve.

Keep in mind also that you must reach out to the individuals whom you want to serve in these roles and ask/confirm that they are willing to assume the associated responsibilities. While being selected may be considered an honor, these positions take time, require work and, in many cases, require a stalwart mindset.

5. Draft your Will

A Will is one of the main, if not the primary, components of every estate plan, even if you don’t have substantial assets. Wills ensure property is distributed according to your wishes and drafted according to state laws. In it, you state who you want to inherit your property, name the person (the Executor) who is in charge of distributing your assets as instructed in the Will, and address the contingency of the simultaneous death of you and your spouse, name a guardian to care for your young children.

Simply having a Will isn’t enough, though. The proper wording of the document is critically important, which is why it is highly recommended that you work with an estate attorney when executing this document. Sometimes, when individuals try to do this themselves with one of the Do It Yourself apps, they overlook important considerations or fail to comply with laws in their state. This can cause probate problems that may require your heirs to spend time and money attempting to rectify misstatements, omissions and other mistakes

6. Consider a Trust

A trust is legal entity that allows a third party, or trustee, to hold assets on behalf of a beneficiary or beneficiaries. Trusts can be arranged in many ways and can specify exactly how and when your assets pass to your heirs.

Trusts typically avoid probate, so your beneficiaries may gain access to these assets more quickly than they might to assets that are transferred through a Will. And, because assets that you’ve held in a trust may be able to pass outside of probate, this saves your heirs time, court fees, and potentially reduces estate taxes as well. An irrevocable trust, for example, may not be considered part of your taxable estate, so fewer taxes may be due upon your death.

You can specify the terms of a Trust down to the letter, controlling when and to whom distributions may be made. What’s more, if you set up a revocable trust, the Trust assets remain accessible to you during your lifetime; you designate to whom the remaining assets will pass, even when there are complex situations such as children from more than one marriage.

A properly constructed Trust can also help protect your estate from your heirs’ creditors, future ex-spouses, or from beneficiaries who may not be adept at managing money. Again, working with an experienced estate attorney will ensure you set up a Trust with the best governance for your unique situation.

7. Make a Living Will

A Living Will, also called an Advanced Directive, is a written statement that details the type of care you want or don’t want if you become incapacitated. A Living Will bears no relation to your conventional Will or Living Trust used to bequest property upon your death. It’s strictly a document that spells out your health care preferences and addresses a number of possible end- of-life care decisions and whether you want or do not want them. While you may indicate you do not want heroic measures, you must define heroic and answer questions regarding whether you want:

Creating your Living Will requires you to think about your values as well as your wishes: Questions like how important it is to you to be independent and self-sufficient? What circumstances might make you feel like your life is not worth living? Would you want treatment to extend your life in any or all situations, or only if a cure seems possible?

Also, beyond treatments during illness, you can specify your wishes to donate your organs and tissues or donating your body to scientific study.

8. Draft a Power of Attorney

A Power of Attorney (POA) is a very important estate planning tool which allows a person you appoint—your Attorney-in-Fact or Agent—to act in your stead in financial and legal matters.

A POA grants broad authority to your agent to sign documents, pay bills, and conduct financial transactions on your behalf.  In other words, your agent will be authorized to handle “the business” of your life.

The Bottom Line 

As is evident from the above considerations, there is more to estate planning than deciding how to divvy up your assets and provide for your loved ones and other beneficiaries when you die. Estate planning also ensures that the right individuals have access to your assets upon your temporary or permanent incapacity so that your affairs can be handled appropriately and the care you receive will ensure the dignity and quality of life you deserve and desire.

While estate planning may seem like a bleak and uncomfortable task for the start of a new year, it is a necessary one to address. You can adjust your mindset to think of your estate planning in a positive light. Just consider: Thorough preparation now will give your family peace and comfort and a stress-free probate process at some future time when your family will be dealing with emotions of loss and sadness.

When you think of estate planning in this way, you will likely come to realize that planning today is a gift you are giving your loved ones for some time in the future. And giving a meaningful gift to your loved ones…there’s no better way to start a new year!

At Phelan, Frantz, Ohlig & Wegbreit, LLC, we take our responsibility to provide families with conscientious estate planning very seriously…in the new year and beyond.  Please enjoy the year ahead and contact us if we can be of assistance to you in developing and/or reviewing the appropriate estate plan for your family.