The Building Blocks of a Sound Estate Plan
Many people think estate planning is necessary only for those with sizable assets. However, even small estates require smart planning to protect loved ones. Here are some important steps you can take now to ease your family's emotional and financial burden in the event of your death:
- Where There's a Will, There's a Way. A will is a formal, legal document that specifies how you want your assets to be distributed after your death. If you die without a will (intestate), your estate will be distributed through the probate court according to the intestacy laws of your state. State intestacy laws function like a "one-size-fits-all" will, and may or may not leave your assets in the hands of those you would have chosen. You must have a will if you wish to designate an executor for your estate, name guardians for minor children, or appoint other fiduciaries.
When preparing a will, it is best to seek qualified, legal advice and ensure the document is properly witnessed. You may also want to consider setting up a living trust. This arrangement can allow you to transfer specific assets to your heirs without going through probate.
- Easy and Inexpensive Property Transfers. One of the simplest and least expensive estate planning techniques for married couples is to own titled property as joint tenants. A typical example of jointly owned property is a personal residence. When you own property jointly, and either you or your spouse dies, the property automatically passes to the surviving spouse without going through probate. However, bear in mind there are several other methods of joint ownership. For instance, community property states have their own laws governing the disposition of assets. Therefore, you may want to consult a legal professional to determine which arrangement is best for you.
- Sleep Easier with Life Insurance. For a relatively low cost, life insurance can help provide your family with the immediate funds needed to meet key financial obligations. Life insurance can also provide replacement income for your family, an especially important consideration if you have outstanding debt and/or provide all, or most, of your family's support.
- Plan for the Worst. Consider purchasing disability income insurance while you are healthy. If you have a disability policy, review it periodically to be sure it still covers your needs. Also, appoint a durable power of attorney and set up a living will or health care proxy to handle financial and medical decisions in case you become physically or mentally incapacitated. Many people select a spouse, a trusted relative, or a friend to represent them.
- Knowledge Can Bring Peace of Mind. Although it may be tempting to shield family members from life's harsh realities, you may find you can best serve your loved ones by informing them of your financial, medical, and estate arrangements.
These are just a few tips for protecting estates. Consider taking these initiatives now, while in your mind. Although smaller estates may have different concerns from larger ones, the key to successful estate preservation is planning, not size!