It’s easy to put off estate planning issues, because it seems like you can always do it tomorrow.
But if you spend just a bit of time and money addressing three basic issues, you can save yourself a lot of money, time and hassle. If you do nothing else …
Get your basic documents in place – a will and durable power of attorney. A will allows you to control distribution of your property at death, and makes provisions for critical issues such as guardianship for your kids. Every parent should have a will and keep it updated. Amazingly, 55% of US adults don’t. Don’t let the court decide who takes care of your kids or gets your assets. Also establish a durable power of attorney, which empowers a person of your choice to manage your affairs and / or make medical decisions if you become incapacitated. There are other documents you may also consider (for example, an advanced medical directive), but a will is the most important.
Check listed beneficiaries of your insurance policies and retirement plans (401k, IRA, etc.). The beauty of these contracts is they avoid probate (the court process post-death that determines who gets what), with the assets going directly where you want. But if your beneficiary pre-deceases you without a “contingent” (back-up) beneficiary named, the assets go through probate. Also, make sure the beneficiaries are not out-dated (for example, an ex-spouse).
Consider a revocable living trust. If you have significant assets apart from retirement plans or life insurance, they may go through probate. That has three disadvantages: time delays, cost and loss of privacy. While it costs money now to set up a trust, it will pay for itself later if you avoid probate on a meaningful sum of money.
You should work with a qualified estate-planning attorney. I can help you determine what you need, recommend several appropriate attorneys and prepare you for the process.
If you have not taken these three basic steps, don’t delay. You’ll be happy when they are behind you.