Protect Your Family With These Estate Planning “Musts”
If you’re looking for a way to protect your loved ones, the first place you should start is with your estate plan.
If you’re like many Americans, all the focus and worry about the economy and the changes we see taking place in Washington have made you more concerned about your loved ones and their future. Are you doing the right things to protect the people you love, in all the ways you actually can?
In my more than thirty-five years in the practice of estate planning law, I have found that one of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to estate planning is believing it’s about money and taxes — and therefore anyone who doesn’t have an estate worth millions of dollars doesn’t have to worry about it. That’s absolutely untrue. Estate planning is about making sure that the people you love — and belongings you care about — make it into the proper hands should something happen to you, and that responsible people are able to make decisions on your behalf if a time comes when you can’t do so for yourself.
With few exceptions, everyone has an estate — even the young child with a custodial account in his name and the granddaughter who received a lovely piece of jewelry for her 16th birthday.
Bottom line: If you own something of value that you would pass on to someone else upon your death, you have an estate. Whether you know it or not, you also have an estate plan. The state has one for you free of charge (well, sort of) if you don’t get around to writing a Will or designing a plan of your own.
Broadly speaking, an estate plan encompasses the accumulation, conservation and distribution of an estate. A good plan will enhance and maintain the financial security of individuals and their families.
To that end, each and every adult American needs five things, or what I call “estate planning musts”, as a part of their estate planning:
- AN EMERGENCY INFORMATION SHEET
This is a letter, one or two pages, a roadmap that could take a total stranger by the hand if something happens to you and make sure the right people are contacted and the proper documents found. It should include names and phone numbers for your closest family members, health care surrogate, friends and neighbors, as well as for your doctors, lawyers, clergyman, accountant and anyone else you rely on. It should note the location of your Will, and the other documents listed below. This is not a legal document, but it is a necessary part of a complete estate plan. The Estate Planning Work Sheet available through our office is a good place to detail this information, but you can make your own.
- A DURABLE POWER OF ATTORNEY
This is a legal document. It gives another person the right to handle your property and finances — your tax matters and your legal ones — if you’re sick, disabled or out of the country. As soon as you have assets in your own name, you absolutely need one of these to avoid the possibility of the state becoming involved in your family’s affairs.
- A LIVING WILL AND THE APPOINTMENT OF A HEALTH CARE SURROGATE
- HIPAA AUTHORIZATION
These could actually be called two “musts” in estate planning, but we combine them for this discussion about medical directives. The Living Will tells the management of a hospital whether or not you want life support should that be necessary. Often, you’re asked to sign one of these before you check into a hospital. Often, that’s also too late. The Designation of a Health Care Surrogate goes hand-in-hand with a Living Will in that it gives another individual, a person, the right to make health-related decisions on your behalf (sometimes it’s known as a durable power of attorney for healthcare). With the “HIPAA” law we now have, it is critical to have those loved ones you select in advance to have access to your medical information, to discuss your options with your doctor, and who will honor your views on your medical care — before it’s necessary.
- A WILL
Research shows that almost 2 out of 3 adult Americans don’t have them. Anyone who cares about what happens to his or her belongings needs a Last Will and Testament. Why? Because if you don’t, the state will decide where your belongings go — and typically that list starts with your parents, if they are living; if not, then your brothers and sisters, and so forth. You may have other preferences. If you have children, it is even more imperative that you write a Will because a Will is where you name guardians for underage children. That is, most certainly, not a decision you want in anyone’s hands other than your own. Your Will should name a personal representative (known in some states as an executor) who carries out your instructions. A Will can also appoint a trustee to provide for family members with special needs or to protect your loved ones’ inheritance from creditors, bad marriages, or from their own faulty judgment. Your personal representative (as well as a backup for the job) should know where your Will is kept, as should your attorney.
William O. Boyd is an estate planning attorney who has been serving the families of Central Florida since 1976 through his offices in Mount Dora, The Villages, and Winter Park. Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. For more information about estate planning or our office, contact us at 888.416.2468 or visit www.boydestatelaw.com .