Yeah, we all know that old adage about death and taxes (one with which I’m intimately familiar in my line of work).
Yet so few people think to plan for either inevitability. We seem to have an obsession with avoiding them – and believe me, I get it. And I’m obviously deeply engaged on the “tax planning” side of things …and there will be (much) more to come on that subject in the coming months.
But perhaps we should pause and look at the other one for a bit – estate planning.
Before I say more though:
It looks like Washington is making moves to create legislation that’ll help secure your retirement package – which is good news for those Chattanooga people nearing retirement age. But nothing happens quickly in Congress. This means it’ll be a little while before we see the effects of it – hold on (for dear life) to your nest egg.
But thinking about and planning for your later years, and how to make your finances *work* for you (especially in this economy) needs to be a priority. And maybe this is one answer … but with the recent issues on Wall Street, you’ll need to start finding ways to secure a retirement for yourself.
(Which isn’t to say that the Social Security system is without benefits – there are MANY, even aside from the income. That is a subject for another day.)
And of course, something else I’d love to help you get figured out is what happens when you’re gone. Nobody likes to think about it. But no matter if you’re in your 20s or in your 60s, making a plan for the surety of death is pretty important.
Why Estate Planning Now
“Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate.” – Ambrose Bierce
When you think of estate planning, you probably think of a will first. That’s only natural given how often people die without one – including celebrities (mega-stars James Dean and Michael Jackson, mega-rich guy Howard Hughes, even Picasso).
Notice that one of these guys was quite young… James Dean died at just 24. When you’re young, you’re not naturally thinking about making a will – which is too bad. When you’re starting your adult life, you’re still on the sunny side of the hill and your finances aren’t too complex, so a will does fine.
But as you age and life gets complicated, you might need a variety of documents to give you better options for leaving your stuff behind.
Here are a few to think about Chattanooga.
Just a starting point in estate planning
Your will is a legal document detailing how property in your estate should be distributed after you die. It also names your executor, who will oversee the distribution of your estate. You can also name guardians for your underage children and beloved pets.
Wills are relatively cheap to put together. You can even write your own, though you’ll definitely want to research this idea carefully to make it all legal and binding.
But there’s a lot a will can’t do – starting with helping your heirs avoid probate court before they get their inheritance. It also can’t cover what happens to some other assets, such as retirement accounts or some bank or brokerage accounts. (These commonly go to beneficiaries, which more than one person has named and then forgotten about over the years, even as circumstances changed.)
What else you might need for estate planning
What extra legal documents might help you depends on your circumstances (we can help you sort this out – give us a buzz). Some of the most common include:
Transfer on death designations. These can help your bank and brokerage accounts and retirement savings go right to your heirs without getting hung in probate.
Living trusts. These shift ownership of your significant assets to a separate legal entity, the trust. You’re the trustee and you hold the reins as long as you’re alive. When you die, the assets in the trust avoid probate – instead, a successor trustee you appointed before your death will transfer ownership to the beneficiaries you also named beforehand.
You can also use a living trust to name someone to manage trust assets for your benefit if you become unable to or to manage the money for beneficiaries who can’t, such as minors or someone with special needs. Add a spendthrift clause and creditors of the beneficiaries can’t reach the principal (though this does limit how much a beneficiary can access, too).
What’s more, these trusts can include assets uncovered in a will, such as retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and jointly owned property.
Powers of attorney. There are a few kinds of these. A durable power of attorney for finances gives someone the legal authority to handle your finances if you can no longer make your own money decisions (needless to say, carefully pick someone you truly trust). You can also specify what your designee can and can’t do on your behalf regarding your money and assets. There are also powers of attorney for property covering real estate and assets.
Health care directives. One reason you even have an estate plan is that one day you might not be able to make your own decisions about medical care. These directives leave specific instructions about the kind of care you do and don’t want and they can appoint someone to make decisions for you.
These travel under a few names, including “do not resuscitate (DNR) order,” “health care declaration,” “medical power of attorney,” and “power of attorney for health care,” among others.
Really putting your estate plan into shape can also involve a couple less-formal documents.
List your assets. Include your home and valuables, even down to laptops and the like, then move on to assets like bank and brokerage accounts, insurance policies, and retirement savings. This chore not only makes life simpler for your executor when you’re gone but also gives you a chance to review assets and bequeath items to those you want to get them. Include your memberships and favorite charities.
List your debts. This isn’t nearly as much fun, but tally up your open credit cards, auto loans, mortgages, home equity lines of credit, and so on. Add account numbers, the location of signed agreements, and the contact info of those who hold your debt.
Make sure your executor and any folks important to your estate plan get the lists.
Your life will continue to change, and every time it does you want to pull out your plan documents and make sure they still reflect what you want.
Life’s full of the unexpected, but the two things you can always expect (death and taxes) don’t have to catch you off guard. If you fail to prepare for these inevitabilities, you’re gonna be dragged along by the current that comes with them – or your family will.
In your corner,
John and Wanda King