Q. What do I need to know about estate planning before I meet with an estate planning attorney?
A. Estate planning is a chore that most of us put off whenever possible. Not only do physicians usually find it uninteresting, expensive, and even worse, it can force us to face our own mortality. However, it is an important aspect of financial planning and, when done poorly (or not at all), can really cause a mess for heirs.
There are three purposes to estate planning:
- Ensure our minor children, our things, and our money go where we wish them to go at the time of our death.
- Minimize the amount of our assets that have to pass through the expensive, time-consuming, and public process of probate.
- For a select few, estate planning is also done to minimize the amount of estate and inheritance taxes paid at the time of death.
While it can be frowned upon to try to rule the lives of your heirs from the grave, one time when everyone agrees it would be wise to provide some direction is when you have minor children. The most important function of a will is to name the person (guardian) who will take care of your children in the event of your death. Your will should also name the person who will manage your assets (including life insurance benefits) on their behalf. While this can be the same person, naming a different person allows you to draw on the talents of different family members or friends and provides some checks and balances.
Assets and Probate
Another function of a will is to determine who gets your stuff and your money when you die. If you die “intestate” (ie, without a will), the probate judge will follow the laws of your particular state to determine who inherits your estate. Basically, if you don’t have a will, the state will make one for you. Typical intestate rules indicate that your spouse has first claim on your assets, then your descendants, followed by your parents, and then your siblings. However, each state has slightly different rules, and you should read them before deciding whether they are in line with your wishes. If they are not, then even if you have no minor children, you need a will. If your family, desires, and financial situation are very simple, you may be just fine with an inexpensive will purchased through an online service. As your assets grow or your family situation becomes more complicated, a consultation with a qualified estate planning attorney becomes more and more valuable.