I’m not a dummy, so I avoid that aisle of the bookstore. You should, too. Let’s concentrate on what really smart people would do instead.
If you’re an exceptionally brilliant person who just happens to know less than you should about estate planning, I’ve written this piece for you.
Estate planning is a complicated field, but at a basic level there are only a few important items to understand. Luckily, understanding estate planning is like building a house: once you grasp the foundation, it’ll be easy to construct a manor later.
…and yes, I am in fact a ninja with similes.
In your will, write “I leave it all to AverageJoe.”
Okay, since you didn’t bite on that dubious advice, I’ll focus on some better tips: when you’re planning your estate, start with a basic document called a will.
If you’re estate is large or convoluted, you may need to gravitate toward more complex documents such as a trust, but you’ll still have a will as the base of your estate plan.
In short, a will is the basic block that everyone will need.
Here’s what you’ll accomplish in your will: you’ll determine where your belongings will go and how they’ll be divided. If you want to also control when they’re divided, you’ll need more complex documents (or a will which converts to a more complex document upon your demise).
In your will you’ll appoint a person to oversee the process. This person is often called the executor of your will.
Some practical advice: try to avoid naming two individuals. People fight about weird stuff when a loved one passes away. If you leave two people in charge equally, you’re asking for them to both fight for your interest. I’d rather you chose one single person who’s very comfortable being seen as “a jerk.”
Usually when I make that recommendation people’s mind springs directly to a specific person. Did yours?
What If I’m Sick and I Can’t Communicate With Medical Pros?
Hmmm…..this one’s a problem. Luckily, there’s an easy solution.
Here’s what we’ll do: We’ll throw into your estate planning package (doesn’t that sound official?) a document often called a Health Care Power of Attorney.
You may have heard the old story about “pulling the plug.” It used to be that you could just write down your wishes on a notarized piece of scrap paper and the doctor would follow it.
Today, that document, often referred to as a living will, isn’t recognized by many doctors and also isn’t legally binding in many states. Instead, you now nominate someone ahead of time to communicate on your behalf with doctor plug-puller.
Who would want that responsibility?
I certainly wouldn’t want the life-long psychotherapy I’ll need after deciding to pull the plug on my mother (not that I haven’t thought about it a time or two….but anger is fleeting, love is strong).
Here’s how you handle this: in the Health Care Power of Attorney, you’ll write down your wishes regarding end of life scenarios. That way, your nominated person will only be following your orders, not deciding what to do in the moment.
I told you this wasn’t difficult. In a kind-of-sick way, it’s fun. Let’s move on.
Who Will Manage My Vast Fortune I Haven’t Built Yet, But Will Someday?
You’ll also need someone to sort through your financial picture if you’re still alive, but unable to communicate or make decisions. For this, you’ll add a document called a Power of Attorney document.
In most cases, this is a springing power, meaning that it’s worthless until you’re incapacitated. You won’t have to worry about junior emptying your bank account the moment you make him your representative.
When it comes to both health care and financial powers of attorney, choose someone your age or younger. There’s a more-than-likely chance you’ll forget about these documents about 32 seconds after you’ve finished. You don’t want your power of attorney to pass away before you do.
On that note, consider a contingent power of attorney to back up your primary choice, in case your nominee can’t serve your wishes.
What About a Trust?
Trusts are important for more complex estates. Some bloggers with estate planning experience aren’t fans of trusts. Others live by them.
I’ll be blunt about trusts: I’ve seen more trust work done that was worthless than trusts which actually made sense. In many cases, there was only one reason for this: the attorney could bill more hours preparing a huge trust instead of a tiny will document.
There are good reasons you may decide a trust is for you:
- you have children by two different spouses,
- your net worth is well above $1M dollars (some estate attorneys will say above $5M is a better number),
- you have specific charitable intentions,
- there are business interests involved in your estate,
- you have specific time frame wishes to dole cash out over longer periods or with specific caveats, and
- You’re worried about privacy in your estate
Who Takes Care of My Beautiful Children?
Assuming you have children, you’ll choose a guardian in your will.
Many people have a will specifically for this reason. If you die intestate (that means without a will), the laws in your state will govern who cares for your children when you die. You’ve seen the mess they’ve made of our roads….imagine what they’ll do with your kids!
Should I Hire Someone Or Use A Kit?
This one is easy. A kit is FAR cheaper, but I’d hire an attorney every time.
Maybe you’re a whiz kid at estate planning. Good for you.
I’ve worked with families that have to clean up the mess left by an uber-guru such as yourself, and wading through your accounts isn’t pretty without professional help. If you work with an attorney, consider this to be your chance to pre-interviewing the person your family is 90 percent likely to deal with once you pass away.
Is this a more expensive approach? Heck yeah.
Will the lawyer’s will look suspiciously like the one in the will kit? In many cases, yup.
All of this is irrelevant. We’re talking about your children, your stuff, your healthcare. Do it right.