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Estate Planning Overview Update – Key Issues to Consider for Your Wills and More

This overview presents the key issues to consider when designing and executing the best estate plan. Also, the work does not stop at signing your estate plan documents; you must also complete the follow up work of beneficiary designations, memorandum to fiduciaries, etc. The goal is to avoid the pitfall of no plan done and the disaster when wills and trusts are in place but the asset ownership and beneficiary designations frustrate the plan by having assets pass to the spouse and not the trust.

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If you do nothing else after reading this, write and deliver a “Memorandum to Survivors” and review asset ownership, all as described at the end of this post.

A comprehensive estate plan can accomplish many goals, such as providing for survivors, ensuring your children are cared for, determining the flow of your assets upon your death, and reducing the amount of taxes your estate will pay while administering your estate. The most important goal is that you have peace of mind knowing that your estate will be administered in accordance with your wishes.

Estate Planning Pyramid

Constructing a pyramid can be helpful for understanding all that goes into an estate plan, much like nutrition and investments. Each level of the pyramid addresses a new level of complexity in your family and financial situation – that is, everyone needs level one, but not all need the later, more complex levels.

Pyramid: Level One

The first level of estate planning provides the most basic protections so it is most suitable to single individuals with no children and few assets. This level of estate plan typically includes the following forms:

Health Care Proxy: This document allows you to appoint people to make decisions about your health care and treatment when you are not capable of doing so. You typically select the surviving spouse and then have a first and second alternate if you wish. Some states call such documents “medical directives” or “medical powers of attorney.”

Living Will: This makes your wishes clear as to whether or not you want to have heroic means used to prolong your life.

Anatomical Gift Instrument: This allows you to have a hospital use organs and other body parts for others in need of a transplant.

Pyramid: Level Two

The second level is most appropriate for individuals in committed relationships. This level includes all the forms listed in the first level, but adds a durable power of attorney. This document grants a power of attorney to the other to manage your financial affairs if you are absent or you become incapacitated.

Pyramid: Level Three

When you have children, you want to ensure that they will be both cared for and provided for in the manner you wish. To achieve this, you need a will to appoint a guardian, for the “care,” and create a trust to manage assets, for the “providing.”

A will is a formal document that designates your personal representative or executor, any alternates, plus a guardian and any alternates for children under age 18, then instructs your personal representative to pay off your debts, and distribute your estate per your wishes.

A trust is an entity that you create and can be used for many purposes. The trustee acts as the owner of what the trust holds, while the beneficiaries get all the benefits from what the trust holds. For estate planning, trusts are used to reduce estate taxes in various ways. Trust vehicles can also describe how and when assets are distributed. For example, the grantor of a trust could insist that assets not go to children until they are age thirty-five. The trust vehicle could also provide where assets flow if all family members die without issue. For example, assets could flow to a charity or educational institution.

Providing for Survivors: You need to address how your assets and any life insurance flow after your death in order to ensure that your resources allow those who survive you to maintain the same standard of living, during their life expectancies, that you all had during your life. If your investments are not sufficient, even after making liquid certain kinds of personal property (e.g., a second home), then there is a need for life insurance.

Life Insurance: Term insurance, providing only a death benefit, funds the shortfall between assets required to maintain the lifestyle of the survivors and actual assets available. Whole life, variable or other types of insurance should only be used when permanent insurance is required, as in the case of maintaining estate liquidity throughout your lifetime.

Flow of Assets: After you determine the assets required to support the lifestyle of the survivor, you determine to whom the assets flow. For example, at Levels One and Two, you can leave everything directly to survivors, while at Levels Three to Six, you use a trust, and at Level Six you may even separate some portion of the assets by gift now.

Control Over Assets: In Levels One and Two, the survivors have complete control over the assets. At higher Levels, trust vehicles are used for the estate tax savings. However, you also gain a heightened level of attention on the assets: you have engaged a trustee to focus on providing for the surviving spouse, maintaining his or her lifestyle, while still attending to the interests of other beneficiaries, such as children. In this way, the trustee will try to preserve the trust assets in the best way possible for the longest duration. Finally, the trustee must distribute the assets per your instructions; if assets went to a survivor, they are not bound in any way to follow your wishes, so you may not achieve your estate planning goals.

Fiduciaries: In designing the estate plan, many choices revolve around the fiduciary that you select for a particular role.

Personal Representative or Executor: This is the person who “marshals” all assets of the estate together, pays death expenses and transfers ownership of property to the surviving spouse or trust. This is approximately a nine-month task.

Guardian: This is the person whom you select to love and care for your children in your absence. The spouse selects the surviving spouse and then a second or third choice beyond that. This job lasts until each child has reached majority (age eighteen).

Trustee: This person has potentially the longest-term job because he or she must manage the trust assets and make distributions of income and sometimes principal to the surviving spouse, children and even grandchildren. Depending on the terms of the trust, this job could last until the children are young adults.

Beneficiary Designations and Ownership: ownership and how life insurance proceeds and retirement plan assets flow is described below.

Pyramid: Level Four

This level of planning addresses state taxes. When the potential combined estate of a husband and wife exceeds $1 million, and they have other beneficiaries for whom they want to maximize the estate after taxes, then trusts are typically used. States such as Massachusetts impose an estate tax over $1 million. Other states have similar amounts, but many are increasing, such as New York which will match the federal credit in 2019. Therefore, additional planning is required if you reside in a state with an estate tax.

Too many people leave their affairs as a mess for survivors to sort through. Estate planning is important, something can address, so read this and act now.

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