Many people fail to create an estate plan because they don’t truly understand what is involved and therefore believe it is too complicated. In truth, creating an estate plan before your death is far less complicated than the entangled mess you’ll leave your family if you fail to plan.  Here are some general strategies and tools that most people should consider to protect their loved ones.

1.  Create a Trust.  When folks think about preparing for the end of life, they think of writing a Will, but having a Will without a Trust may put your family on the fast track to the Courthouse after you are gone.  To prevent this tragedy and keep your family out of Court, you’ll want to set up a Trust and re-title all of your assets to be owned by that Trust.  While it might feel like a lot of effort, it will save your family a LOT of trouble after you are gone.  And making this effort will ensure that your wish is their command….

2.  Designate beneficiaries.  Retirement accounts and insurance policies require separate attention, because these assets do not pass to beneficiaries through a Will or Trust.  As an essential part of your estate planning, you will need to review (and potentially revise) the beneficiary designations for these assets.  This will ensure that the benefits go to the people of your choosing.  The process of filling out beneficiary designation forms for each of your accounts is relatively simple, and it will ensure these assets stay out of the Court system.  Be sure to review your beneficiary designations periodically to be sure they align with your current circumstances. HOT TIP: never name minor children as beneficiaries of your retirement account or life insurance policies AND if you have more than $150,000 in a retirement account, consider a special trust called a Retirement Trust to ensure the most beneficial tax treatment for your loved ones.

3.  Avoid estate taxes.  Most of us will not have to worry about estate taxes, since the federal estate and gift tax exemption is $5.34 million ($10.68 million for married couples) in 2014 and indexed to rise every year for inflation.  However, if you are married and wish to take advantage of portability – where spouses are entitled to each other’s unused exemption – the surviving spouse must file the required paperwork to claim the exemption.  Plus, 15 states and the District of Columbia have state estate taxes, so you could still owe even if your estate is too small to owe federal tax. The big key here is to not just leave a set of documents that your family will have to figure out after you are gone.  Rather, give them the gift of a trusted advisor to turn to; call us if you’d like to consider having us be that trusted advisor for your loved ones.

4.  Leave a letter of instruction.  Not everything you may wish to pass on to your heirs – like instructions for your funeral – should be put in your will or Trust.  Leaving a letter of instruction with your family or attorney can ensure your final wishes are respected.  And take it one step further with a Family Wealth Legacy CD or DVD in which you record your values, insights, stories and experiences for your loved ones to refer back to for generations to come.  We provide this service at no additional charge for our clients because we know this is one of the things families value the most and is rarely provided.

5.  Sign a durable power of attorney.  Estate planning is not just about death.  You should also ensure that somebody you trust is authorized handle things in the event you become incapacitated.  Consider signing a durable power of attorney that designates a person to handle your financial affairs. This will save time, money, and hassle for your family by ensuring that nobody has to go to court to have a guardian or conservator appointed to manage your financial affairs. A guardianship could cost tens of thousands of dollars (and tons of brain-damage)…a drain of resources that is easily avoided with one simple document and a trusted advisor for your family to turn to in a time of need.  We include a valid durable power of attorney designation in every estate plan that we prepare.  Plus, we advise you on how to choose the best authorized agent, and we teach you how to handle the care and use of this powerful document.

6.  Create an Advance Healthcare Directive.  This document designates a decision maker of your choosing to make sure your wishes are followed when it comes to the medical care you want – or do not want – to receive when you are incapacitated or near death.  You will also need to sign a HIPAA release form so your medical records can be released to your health care agent and so that medical professionals can discuss your medical care with that person.

7.  Organize your paperwork and digital files.  Since many of us live our lives online these days, make sure your executor has access to all your digital information, including website addresses and the log-in information for those sites.  Put all your important paperwork – deeds, insurance policies, bank and brokerage statements, etc. – in one file and let your executor know where it is.

Bonus tip: If you have minor children at home (or adult children with special needs), don’t rely on naming guardians in your Will alone. Create a comprehensive Kids Protection Plan to ensure your children’s care is covered not just for the long-term, but for the immediate term as well. This will help ensure that no one you don’t want raising your kids ever has a chance to take control.

Contact us about scheduling a Family Wealth Planning Session so we can sit down and talk about designing a plan that fits the needs of you and your family.  Surprisingly, sometimes the less you have, the more important it is to plan.