Everyone needs an estate plan. Due to the range of decisions and situations that such a plan can cover, you shouldn’t let a lack of property or wealth keep you from addressing this. An estate plan generally includes a number of documents, and only some of these focus on transferring wealth when you die.
Of course, one of the essential pieces is a Last Will and Testament. This is important for certain transfers of property but also can deal with other topics, such as burial arrangements. The second essential part of your estate plan is a Durable Power of Attorney, although it basically is effective only while you are living. You could choose someone to make financial decisions or, at least, handle your financial affairs, such as paying bills, when you are unable to do these things. A Medical Power of Attorney can provide authority over some medical decisions when your medical condition prevents you from speaking for yourself.
A final essential element in every estate plan is commonly known as a Living Will (or Advance Directive). It permits you to make decisions regarding the medical treatment and care that you would want when you can no longer communicate your wishes and are not likely to recover in the opinion of doctors who have examined you while you have been in this condition. You could name a surrogate decision maker, but – if a decision is covered in the Living Will – you can require that your surrogate follows your wishes.
The need for a Power of Attorney and a Living Will may be more understandable than the need for a Will if a person has does not own much. However, your Last Will and Testament can provide valuable information, regardless of the size of your estate. You may have items that have sentimental value to family members or even a small amount of cash that you want a particular person to have after your death. A Will can be used to make your intent clear. It also can provide other information; for example, you can name the person you want to handle the necessary activities that follow a person’s death, including handling taxes and your final expenses. You also must remember that, while your Will can make your wishes clear, the necessary person has to have access to it in order for it to be effective.
While a Will is important in transferring ownership of property to others, an estate plan can use other methods to do this. Each possibility has positive and negative points that are best reviewed with a professional. One method is to set up a joint account with the right of survivorship, which avoids the probate process but not necessarily the so-called death taxes (such as Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax). Other assets, including a life-insurance policy, can name beneficiaries so probate again can be avoided. Another possibility with life insurance is to use it to fund a trust as part of your estate plan.
Trusts of various types can be used for a variety of purposes. There are trusts that are intended to reduce the tax bill for your estate and for others – this is a complicated area that’s beyond the scope of this post, but it may be a realistic consideration depending on your circumstances. An example is a “credit-shelter” trust that a wealthy spouse might want to shield a surviving spouse’s estate from a large federal estate tax bill later on.
However, trusts are not just a tool of the rich and can be created for purposes that don’t focus on protecting wealth. For example, you may have a child who receives Medicaid (or, as it is known in Pennsylvania, Medical Assistance), which limits income and resources that your child can have while retaining eligibility. You could decide to disinherit your child to avoid the loss of these benefits, but you might consider a “supplemental needs” trust in your estate plan. Basically, this does not permit payments that would replace government benefits but can pay for other things to supplement what your child receives from public sources. A carefully drafted trust would make this possible.
Estate planning can even take place through gifts while you are alive and through post-mortem planning, such as a disclaimer by a beneficiary or an heir of something that she would receive so that it goes to someone else. Disclaimers often are used based on tax implications. With the numerous potential aspects of an estate plan, a person often benefits from consulting with a professional about the available options. Even the seemingly simplest estate can benefit from a review of an individual’s objectives and the consideration of ways that you might be met.
For the moment, there is one final thought to keep in mind. You never should view an estate plan as a final product. With time, changes occur in a life. The purpose of the plan may change if you get married or divorced, for example. Laws also change, and your plan may no longer meet your tax-planning goals when new tax laws are passed. An estate plan should be reviewed every few years, at least, so that it remains relevant to your current circumstances. No matter how simple or complex an estate plan may be, you need to make sure that it is one that you can live with as time goes by.