Why Do I Need Estate Planning If I’m Not Rich?

Many people spend more time planning a vacation than they do thinking about who will inherit their assets after they pass away. Although estate planning isn’t an enjoyable activity, without it, you don’t get to direct who gets everything for which you’ve worked so hard.

Investopedia asks you to consider these four reasons why you should have an estate plan to avoid potentially devastating results for your heirs in its article “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important.”

Wealth Won’t Go to Unintended Beneficiaries. Estate planning may have been once considered something only rich people needed, but that’s changed. Everyone now needs to plan for when something happens to a family’s breadwinner(s). The primary part of estate planning is naming heirs for your assets. Without an estate plan, the courts will decide who will receive your property.

Protection for Families With Young Children. If you are the parent of small children, you need to have a will to ensure that your children are taken care of. You can designate their guardians, if both parents die before the children turn 18. Without a will and guardianship clause, a judge will decide this important issue.

Avoid Taxes. Estate planning is also about protecting your loved ones from the IRS. Estate planning is transferring assets to your family, with an attempt to create the smallest tax burden for them as possible. A little estate planning can reduce much or even all of their federal and state estate taxes or state inheritance taxes. There are also ways to reduce the income tax beneficiaries might have to pay. However, without an estate plan, the amount your heirs will owe the government could be substantial.

No Family Fighting (or Very Little). One sibling may believe she deserves more than another. This type of fighting can turn ugly and end up in court, pitting family members against each other. However, an estate plan enables you to choose who controls your finances and assets, if you become mentally incapacitated or after you die. It also will go a long way towards settling any family conflict and ensuring that your assets are handled in the way you wanted.

To protect your assets and your loved ones when you no longer can do it, you’ll need an estate plan. Without one, your family could see large tax burdens, and the courts could say how your assets are divided, or even who will care for your children.

Reference: Investopedia (May 25, 2018) “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important”

 

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What Do I Need to Know About Estate Planning After a Divorce?

The recent changes in the tax laws created increased year-end activity for those trying to finalize their divorces by December 31—prior to the effective date of the new rules.

The new tax laws stipulate that alimony is no longer deductible by the payor, and it’s no longer taxable by the receiver—this creates a negative impact on both parties. The payor no longer receives a tax deduction, and the receiver will most likely wind up with less alimony because the payor has more taxes to pay.

Forbes’ recent article, “9 Things You Need To Know About Estate Planning After Divorce” suggests that if you were one of those whose divorce was finalized last year, it’s time to revise your estate plan. It’s also good idea for those people who divorced in prior years and never updated their estate plans. Let’s look at some of the issues about which you should be thinking.

See your estate planning attorney. Right off the bat, send your divorce agreement to your estate planning attorney, so he or she can see what obligations you have to your ex-spouse in the event of your death.

Health care proxy. This document lets you designate someone to make health care decisions for you, if you were incapacitated and not able to communicate.

Power of attorney. If you had an old POA that named your ex-spouse, it should be revoked, and you should execute a new POA naming a friend, relative, or trusted advisor to act as your agent regarding your finances and assets.

Your will and trust. Ask your attorney to remove the provisions for your ex-spouse and remove your ex-spouse as the executor and trustee.

Guardianship. If you have minor children, you can still name your ex-spouse as the guardian in your will. Even if you don’t, your ex-spouse will probably be appointed guardian if you pass away, unless he or she is determined by the judge to be unfit. While you can select another responsible person, be sure to leave enough cash in a joint bank account (with the trusted guardian you name) to fund the litigation that will be necessary to prove your ex-spouse is unfit.

A trust for your minor children. If you don’t have a trust set up for your minor children, and your ex-spouse is the children’s guardian, he or she will have control of the children’s finances until they turn 18. You may ask your estate planning attorney about a revocable trust that will name someone else you select as the trustee to access and control these funds for your children, if you pass away.

Life insurance. You may have an obligation to maintain life insurance under the divorce agreement. Review this with your estate planning attorney and with your divorce attorney.

Beneficiary designations. Be certain that your 401K and IRA beneficiary designations are consistent with the terms of your divorce agreement. Have the beneficiary designations updated. If you still want to name your ex-spouse as the beneficiary, execute a new beneficiary designation dated after the divorce. It’s also wise to leave a letter of intent with your attorney, so your intentions are clear.

Prenuptial agreement. If you’re thinking about getting remarried, be certain you have a prenuptial agreement.

It’s a great time to settle these outstanding issues from your divorce and get your estate plan in order.

Reference: Forbes (January 8, 2019) “9 Things You Need To Know About Estate Planning After Divorce”

 

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Should I Use an Online Will Service?

More than 50% of Americans don’t have a will, according to a 2017 survey by Caring.com. Spelling out how your assets should be divided, is an essential start to estate planning that can be easily overlooked.

A U.S. News & World Report’s article asks “Should You Make a Free Will Online?” According to the article, before writing your will or using an online service, you need to know the legal requirements in your area. In many instances, this is best left to a legal professional in your state.

There are plenty of online tools that will help you create a will. However, before clicking on a website’s promise, you need to evaluate the available options. There are three main ways to write a will:

  1. Do it yourself;
  2. Use a do-it-yourself program; or
  3. Get help from a qualified estate planning attorney.

If you draft a will on your own, you’ll need to be absolutely certain you understand all of the applicable probate, tax and property laws. People who’ve written their own wills are usually those with very basic estates, like a person with a single piece of real estate and a small amount in basic checking accounts.

If you use an online service, you’ll have access to software that walks you through the process. In this case, you’ll need to be sure that the software company has all the applicable laws covered, as required for your state. You also want a program that lets you make updates later, if your situation changes.

However, if you engage the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to have an expert help you think through the details. This result will be a well-drafted comprehensive estate plan. Yes, it will cost a bit more, but for many situations—like those with blended families, complex investments, or property in several states—it’s worth it.

Remember that the probate laws can vary widely from state to state. For example, the basic form requirements may allow a handwritten will in some states, but in other states the will must be typewritten. Some states require only two witnesses, and others require that the will be witnessed, notarized and typed.

If you have a larger estate or heirs with medical conditions, it may be wise to work with an attorney who can counsel you on the best solutions for your situation. For example, if you have a child with special needs receiving government benefits, you should have an attorney create a trust so their inheritance doesn’t negatively impact their benefits.

You should also use an attorney if you want to reduce your exposure to probate fees. Some people transfer their assets into a revocable living trust, so they are not subject to probate fees. An online service can’t give you this type of attention or personalized service.

If you have a complex situation, you may end up paying less by using an attorney. An experienced estate planning attorney has helped numerous families. He or she can offer insight into setting up guardians for minor children or appointing an individual to be in charge of the distribution of the estate. There are frequently estate and gift tax considerations about which the average person doesn’t know or monitor.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (January 9, 2019) “Should You Make a Free Will Online?”

 

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Am I Too Young to Start Thinking About Estate Planning?
Protect your children with an estate plan

Am I Too Young to Start Thinking About Estate Planning?

Many people believe they’re too young to begin thinking about estate planning. Others say they don’t have significant enough assets to make the process of planning worthwhile.

However, the truth is that everyone needs estate planning. If you have any assets, and you intend to give those assets to a loved one, you need to have a plan.

Forbes’s article, “Reviewing Your Financial And Estate Planning Checklist,” examines some important topics in estate planning.

The first of topic is a durable power of attorney for property, finances and health care. This document allows you to designate a trusted individual to make decisions and take action on your behalf with matters relating to each of the three areas above.

In addition to the importance of having all powers of attorney readily available, in case you become incapable of making decisions, beneficiary designations should also be looked at frequently to update any changes to family situations, like a birth or adoption, death, marriage or divorce.

Another topic to address is a living trust. A trust will give direction regarding where and how the assets are dispersed when you die. A great reason to use a living trust is that the assets in a trust do not pass through probate court, which can be an expensive and time-consuming process.

Another area is digital assets. It’s critical for your heirs to have access to digital files, passwords and documents. This can be easy to overlook. Create a list of your digital assets, including social media accounts, online banking accounts and home utilities you manage online. Include all email and communications accounts, shopping accounts, photo and video sharing accounts, video gaming accounts, online storage accounts, and websites and blogs that you manage. This list should be clear and updated for your heirs to access.

If we fail to plan for these somewhat uncomfortable topics, the outcome will be stressful and expensive for our heirs.

Reference: Forbes (January 4, 2019) “Reviewing Your Financial And Estate Planning Checklist”

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What Should I Think About Before the Baby Comes?

Prince William Living’s recent article, “Baby on the Way? Here’s How You Can Prepare Financially,” says that as you plan to welcome your child, consider these seven tips that can help you decide how to provide your family with the lifestyle you desire.

Examine your career. A new baby may cause you to think differently about your career goals—you may seek a promotion, a job with a higher salary or better benefits, or more education. Perhaps you or your spouse want to decrease your hours or become a stay-at-home parent. If you are thinking about changing your job status, examine the effect it may have on your take-home pay, retirement nest egg and benefits.

Lifestyle changes. Look at how your baby will affect your day-to-day activities. If your perfect lifestyle involves a new car or home, talk to a financial professional about whether to make the move now or in the future.

Childcare expenses. Nearly one-third of parents spend 20% or more of their income on childcare. In some states, the cost for a year of care can be more than one year of college!

Tuition. Private elementary or secondary school often costs money, and the price of a college education continues to rise at a pace faster than inflation. The 2017 tax reform expanded the use of 529 plans, so you can now withdraw up to $10,000 federal income tax-free per beneficiary, per year to pay for kindergarten through 12th grade tuition at a public, private or religious school.

Review your financial position. Unanticipated events can impact your finances at any time. Resolve to build or maintain an emergency fund that could cover three to six months of expenses.  You should also prioritize your retirement savings. After your baby arrives, update your estate plan and insurance coverage as needed.

Consider family values. Consider how you want to teach your child about financial responsibility. Being intentional early, can help create clear expectations and ensure that you and your spouse are on the same page.

The family bucket list. Look at what activities matter to you and add them into your financial plan. Taking an annual vacation or having a vacation home are common goals for many families.

Adding a new member to your family has a way of putting your priorities into perspective. Use these reminders to plan accordingly. Don’t forget that you’ll need an estate plan now that your family is growing. Your will should name a guardian in case something happens to you and your spouse. If there is no will, or no guardian named, the state will decide who will raise your child. Talk with an estate planning attorney to make sure that your planning for the future is complete.

Reference: Prince William Living (December 2018) “Baby on the Way? Here’s How You Can Prepare Financially”

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Is Your Estate Plan on Track?

Investopedia’s article from this fall, “How to Get Your Estate Plan on Track,” tells us what an estate plan accomplishes. A good estate plan accomplishes three objectives:

  • End-of-life health care decisions are documented in a legally binding document;
  • Assets will be distributed according to your instructions, rather than state law; and
  • Loved ones avoid the time, expense and stress of the probate process.

A basic estate plan should include advanced directives, such as a health care proxy and power of attorney, will (perhaps a “pour-over” will and a revocable living trust). If you want to ensure that you have a valid will that follows the laws of your state, avoid pitfalls and best protect your family, hire an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain you have professional legal knowledge, when considering the nuances of trusts and estate law.

A health care proxy, also called a health care power of attorney, accomplishes two goals. First, it authorizes a designated individual to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are ill or otherwise can’t make these decisions on your own. Without this, a judge would decide who has this authority in those circumstances. A health care proxy also allows you to document specific decisions for your health care, such as end-of-life decisions.

Your estate plan should also include a power of attorney, which allows you to authorize a person to make financial decisions in your stead. It’s used, if you’re not in a position to handle such affairs on your own (like a health care proxy).

Probate is the legal process where the court approves the distribution of your assets and gives creditors an opportunity to collect your debts. Going through probate can be stressful for your heirs. There are costs incurred and procedures that must be followed before assets are distributed. The probate process can take months and can be dragged out for more than a year in some situations.

Probate can be avoided with the right planning. For example, you can title certain assets like bank accounts, brokerage accounts, and property, so they pass directly by operation of law to your heirs, and bypass probate. Retirement assets are required to have beneficiaries and likewise will bypass probate. Make sure to have contingent beneficiaries, so these assets continue to bypass probate, if your beneficiaries predecease you.

For people with minor children, designating their potential guardian is one of the most critical elements of an estate plan. It is part of your will in most states. Remember, if you don’t name guardians in your will, and both you and your spouse pass away, the court will appoint a guardian, which may not be ideal for your children.

There are other unique situations that may warrant creating additional documentation and planning. These include having a business, adult children from a previous marriage, a potential liability against your estate or a special needs child. In any of these situations, you’ll definitely need to review your circumstances with an attorney.

Those assets held jointly (your home perhaps) and assets that have a beneficiary (life insurance) aren’t included in the will. Each state has its own rules about where the property goes, when a person dies without a will.

Estate planning is an ongoing process. Review your plan every few years or if you’ve had any major life changes, like a birth or adoption of a child, a divorce or a death of a family member.

Having your affairs in order can help prevent making things worse after you pass away.

Reference: Investopedia (October 17, 2018) “How to Get Your Estate Plan on Track”

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The Right Documents for Estate Planning

Having a properly prepared estate plan, that includes all the important documents, including a will and power of attorney, is one of the most important ways to protect your family and yourself. Despite this fact, many adults still neglect to take care of this important task, reports Consumer Reports in its article “8 Essential Steps for Estate Planning.”

A survey from Caring.com showed that as many as 60% of adults don’t have estate planning documents. When they asked families with young children, fewer than one in ten have even designated a guardian to take care of their children, if both parents should die.

What happens when there’s no planning in place? Even the simplest things become more complicated, and complicated things become financial and legal nightmares. When there’s an emergency and decisions need to be made, the entire family is subjected to more stress and costs than would otherwise be necessary.

Here are the eight steps you need to take, right now, to protect your family:

  1. Get the professional help you need. The change to the tax law may or may not impact your family and your estate plan, but you won’t know until you sit down with an estate planning attorney. Trying to do this online, may seem like a simpler way, but you will not have the same peace of mind as when you sit down with an experienced attorney—and one who knows your state’s laws.
  2. Create a will. This is a legal document that explains how you want your assets to be distributed after you die. It names an executor to carry out your instructions. If you have minor children, this is an especially important document, since it is used to name their guardian. If you have no will when you die (called dying “intestate”), then the laws of your state determine how your assets are distributed and who rears your children. Depending on where you live, your spouse might not automatically inherit everything.
  3. Discuss whether you need a Revocable Living Trust. In most states, when you pass away, your estate goes through a process called “probate.” The courts basically review your estate plan and determine whether everything looks right. The problem is that your will becomes a public document—and so does information about your assets. Some people prefer to keep their lives private by transferring assets to a revocable living trust, which distributes assets according to your instructions at your death. Titles to the assets must be changed, so they are “owned” by the trust. This is known as “funding” the trust. You still retain complete control of your assets, since you are the trustee. However, if you fail to retitle assets, the estate goes through probate. You will also still need a will to protect your minor children.
  4. Review your beneficiaries. Whether you remember it or not, when you open many different kinds of accounts—banking, investment—you assign a beneficiary to receive the assets upon your death. Your will does not override the beneficiary designation. Therefore, if you haven’t changed your life insurance beneficiary, for instance, and your ex-wife is still named on the document, she’ll get the entire proceeds of the life insurance policy when you die. This is a very important task.
  5. Have a Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) created. This is something that protects you, while you are living. If you should become incapacitated, having a durable power of attorney in place will allow that person to manage your financial affairs. Make sure the institutions that have your accounts accept your attorneys’ POA form; you may need to get the one that the institution uses.
  6. Don’t forget the Advance Directive. This is also known as a Living Will. It explains your wishes for medical procedures, if you are unable to communicate and explains what you want for end-of-life care. Make sure that your family members know that you have such a document and keep it accessible in case of an emergency.
  7. Pick a Healthcare Proxy. The Healthcare Proxy, also known as the Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare, names someone to convey your healthcare wishes. It should include a HIPAA release clause. This allows medical personnel to release your medical records and speak with the named person about your care.
  8. Get it all organized. Think of this step as creating a user’s manual for yourself. All these plans won’t do any good, unless your loved ones know they exist and know where to locate them. Don’t put your estate planning documents and records in a bank safe deposit box, in case it is sealed on death. Your attorney will likely have an original, and you should have your original in a fire-proof safe in a secure location in your home.

Reference: Consumer Reports (Oct. 24, 2018) “8 Essential Steps for Estate Planning”

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