Many people associate the topic of a family estate with storied mansions and inherited jewels that are divided among a millionaire’s heirs, but the truth is: You don’t have to have Rockefeller money to plan for what happens to your assets. If you have family members or loved ones you’re close with, you should have an arrangement in place for when you pass on.
Put simply, estate planning means getting your affairs in order to ensure that everything you own with value attached to it goes to who or what you want it to—without complication. Your estate includes all of your financial assets, like checking, savings and retirement accounts, equity in your home, your life insurance policy, etc. Sorting out the details in advance doesn’t only guarantee you have control over what happens, it provides an emotional—and logistical—boon for your beneficiaries. With that in mind, here’s what you should consider around the idea of a family estate.
Create a durable power of attorney
No one likes to think about their mortality, but the fact of the matter is we all need to address it eventually—especially when money is involved. Sometimes, death is a prolonged process. For example, if you are ever to become mentally incapacitated and no longer able to take care of your own affairs, assigning a durable power of attorney for your finances ensures someone will take control who has your best, and pre-directed, interests in mind. You’ll want to make sure it’s “durable,” as ordinary power of attorney ends if you become mentally incapacitated.
Many people do this if they don’t have others to care for them, but it’s a good idea even if you do. Often, family members will need to jump through legal hoops to take over your affairs. With a durable power of attorney, that process will be more seamless.
Write a will
Everyone should have a will, and they’re fairly easy to create. You can see a lawyer or financial advisor, have one drafted for you at a legal clinic for under $100, or create one online for even less with sites like LegalZoom or Nolo. When writing your will, consider who will inherit your assets. If you have children, designate who will become their legal guardians. Also, state who will make financial and medical decisions on your behalf if necessary.
Here’s how it plays out: After you pass away, your executor, who is named in the will, will distribute the assets to your beneficiaries during a process known as probate. This will include settling any debts you have.
If you don’t have a will when you pass away, the state will determine where your assets go, typically by lineage. Your spouse may get everything, or the next closest living relative, though this varies depending on where you live. That’s why it’s so important to plan ahead, draft it on your own, regularly update it as your life circumstances change, and know the legal proceedings and state involvement in your area.
Have a living trust
A living trust is different from a will in that there is no probate period, so your heirs will receive the assets more quickly after your death. You can also add restrictions to how and when your assets are distributed. For example, your child will receive a specific amount of money on your behalf each year once they turn certain age. The heir will pay any debts you have and then distribute everything else according to your instructions. Importantly, trusts provide more privacy than a will, which becomes a matter of public record.
A trust is more expensive to set up and typically used by wealthier individuals to avoid the estate tax—or by people who want more control over how their heirs access and use the assets they’re being left. Still, it’s an option.
You should avoid leaving the future division of your assets up to the state. While you might not think you have enough wealth to make an estate, or will, or trust worth while, a moderately funded retirement account, some equity in a house, or a decent life insurance policy guarantee you’re worth more than you think. So, take the steps now to make sure everything is in line for your loved ones and your legacy.
“A moderately funded retirement account, some equity in a house, or a decent life insurance policy guarantee you’re worth more than you think.”