If only we could stretch out summer — and our lives. But while the approach of autumn is fairly predictable — heralded by back-to-school signs in every store — our life expectancy is subject to the whims of fate or a higher power.
That’s why it’s important to be prepared for the unexpected. And in that spirit, here’s a brief reminder that the last lazy days of summer might be a good time to update your estate plan.
Don’t be intimidated by the term “estate planning.” You might not think you have much of an “estate,” but this is just a generic term that basically covers everything you own or care about. It is not just for the wealthy. If you’re a renter, you likely have some prized possessions to distribute, or maybe a cat that will need care. And you might have some funeral wishes.
Let me start by saying that the legalities of your planning must be done by an attorney in your state of residence, one who specializes in estate planning. Forget the online documents and do-it-yourself kits in an attempt to make money. If you make a mistake, by the time it is discovered you won’t be around to fix it! Ask your bank or local bar association for a referral. Or search at www.search-attorneys.com.
Your responsibility is basically to figure out who gets what. And who takes care of your children, pets or anything else that currently depends on your presence. That means you must do some thinking well before you consult an attorney. To guide those decisions it helps to have a basic understanding of estate planning terms:
—Will. A will is the document everyone thinks about in terms of estate planning. It gives your instructions about distribution of your stuff. It binds the person you name as executor to carry out your wishes. And it’s a legal document, as opposed to simply leaving a note telling your family and friends what they get. It also gives you a chance to contribute to charities, plan your funeral and express your thoughts about custody of children and pets.
But a will has two drawbacks. First, it must go through the court process called probate. That can take time and cost money. And it makes your assets part of the public record. Second, it doesn’t cover the possibility that you may be alive but incapacitated. For that reason, many people consider a more all-encompassing directive — a revocable living trust.
—Revocable living trust. This kind of trust is one you create while you are alive and able to serve as the trustee. You re-title all of your major assets, such as your home, investment accounts (not your retirement accounts) and property, in the name of your trust. You can still buy and sell those assets, reporting gains or losses on your personal tax return. There are no tax consequences or benefits from taking this action.
As part of the trust documents, you name a successor trustee to act after your death, or if you become incapacitated. The trustee does not have to go through the court probate process to carry out your instructions. A RLT is better than owning your home in joint name, because your spouse doesn’t have to get court permission to sell property if you can’t sign.
—Other documents. You’ll still need a healthcare power of attorney, giving a trusted loved one the ability to make medical decisions on your behalf. And you should prepare a living will, detailing your feelings about prolonging end-of-life care.
—Beneficiaries. Some of your assets are distributed directly to your named beneficiary regardless of your will or trust. Retirement plan accounts and life insurance policies fall in this category. Be sure you have updated the beneficiaries to reflect your current wishes. You don’t need a lawyer to do that.
For everything there is a season — including our lives. No matter what your age, this is the season to plan for the inevitable and the unexpected. That’s the Savage Truth.