An estate plan is more than a list of who gets what. Make sure your family knows your wishes by creating your plan with these four steps.
It can be difficult to talk to your grown kids about money. Especially when the discussion involves planning for a time when you may be unable to care for yourself or have died.
While you’d probably rather do the dishes than write your will (or talk about it), you can’t just hope for the best when it comes to estate planning.
And you do need a plan.
If illness or disability ever makes it difficult to handle your own affairs, you’ll need someone you can trust to help, says Harry S. Margolis, an estate planning lawyer in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Plus, you’ll want to make sure your assets and personal treasures go where you want them to go after your death, says certified financial planner Lynn S. Evans. She’s the managing director of Women of Substance, LLC, a firm devoted to the financial needs of baby boomer women.
“If you don’t have a plan, the state has one for you,” Evans says. “And it may not be what you want. States’ plans of who gets what at your death or who steps in if you’re seriously ill or injured are often based on older, traditional family arrangements that may not fit your life. For example, if you’ve remarried, your new spouse could inherit everything. Grown kids from previous marriages would be left out.”
Unfortunately, only 18% of Americans age 55 and older have the necessary documents to avoid these scenarios, according to a survey by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. Make things easier on your loved ones by following these steps to get your plan in place.
Step 1. Take stock of all your belongings
First, do an inventory of your stuff, Evans says. Some possessions, such as cars, are easy to find. Others aren’t.
To begin, create a list of valuables and assets. Include important information, such as what each item is worth, how much you owe on it, and where it can be found, Evans says. If you own a home or car, start there. Then list checking, savings, and retirement accounts. Then think about other valuable items you may own, including collectables.
“Sometimes people have collections or other personal possessions in safety deposit boxes or safes,” says Evans. “It helps to have a list of things of value so they can be found and distributed.”
If something is worth a lot of money, it will need to be reported for tax purposes. “There are penalties for failure to report estate assets,” she says.
Step 2. Pick an administrator
Your estate administrator — sometimes called an executor — makes sure your wishes are carried out. Being an executor is a big job. The person you choose needs to be willing and able to do it. And you need to be able to trust them.
“If you have no one in your life who fits that description, you might name your attorney, accountant, or even a bank trust department,” says Evans.
If you have children, don’t appoint them all as co-executors.
“That’s a real hassle because one kid could be living in California, one in Texas, and one in Connecticut,” Evans says. “Anytime anything has to be signed or a decision made, they all have to sign off on it.”
Instead, choose the one who has time to do the job and can make some tough calls in case there’s a conflict.
“You want to find somebody who is relatively centered and calm,” Evans says. “They need to be able to listen well to all sides, make a decision, and be comfortable with having made that decision.”
Step 3. Put it on paper
A lawyer can help you draw up the documents that spell out your desires for everything from your funeral arrangements to who gets what.
There are also online programs such as LegalZoom, FreeWill, or Willing where you can create all the documents you need.
“It’s better to use an online program than to do nothing,” says Margolis, who answers estate planning questions at Ask Harry. The DIY route works best for straightforward situations.
If your situation is more complex, go to a pro.
“If you have children from different partners, if you have a larger estate that has complicated taxes, or if you have children or a spouse with any kind of special needs: In these situations, you need to work with a lawyer,” Margolis says.
You’ll need the following:
- A will. Don’t have one? Don’t feel too bad — only 55% of Americans age 55 and up do, according to the Merrill Lynch survey. And if you do have one, revisit it. Other surveys show that many wills are out of date.
- A power of attorney. You’ll need at least one person legally authorized to step in if you can’t handle your finances or make decisions for whatever reason. Pick someone you trust who is competent to make legal and financial decisions, says Margolis.
- A healthcare proxy. This person will make healthcare decisions if you cannot. You want someone who’s patient and a good listener. “It’s important to have one point person to talk with medical professionals,” says Margolis. “Otherwise, it’s possible to get conflicting stories about treatments and prognoses. That doesn’t mean the proxy shouldn’t consult with other family members, however.”
You may also want other healthcare documents that spell out your wishes about extraordinary measures, such as life support and resuscitation.
Step 4. Discuss your plans with your kids — or don’t
If you have a good relationship with your children and they all get along, you can share your thoughts with them, says Evans. You might want to explain your wishes so there are no surprises when you’re gone.
“But you don’t want to do that if there are a lot of hard feelings between the kids, because that could create problems that you would not wish to have intentionally created,” she says.
Create all the documents you need:LegalZoom
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Create all the documents you need: FreeWill
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Have estate planning questions? Harry Margolis has answers: Ask Harry
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