Contemplating your own mortality is not on anyone’s list of fun pastimes. However, having an estate plan is a gift to family members and is important whether you are wealthy or not, says a recent article from CNBC, “5 key things to know when you create a will and make other end-of-life plans.” Don’t be intimidated by the word “estate.” It simply means the sum of your possessions.
At its essence, your estate plan details whom you want to make decisions for you if you become incapacitated or when you die and who will inherit what you own.
Estate plans don’t need to be complicated. However, they do need to be done correctly, so working with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state of residence is essential.
Here are five key things to keep in mind as you start preparing your estate plan:
A will is never enough. The will is the foundation, identifying whom you want to receive certain property, naming an executor and naming a guardian for dependent children. However, some assets pass outside of the will, including retirement accounts, IRAs, life insurance policies and annuities. Any beneficiaries listed on these accounts supersede instructions in your will. Therefore, for example, if your ex-spouse is listed on the beneficiary designation and you never updated the document, they’ll inherit the account, regardless of how long you have been divorced.
Some 401(k) accounts require your current spouse to be the beneficiary, unless they legally agree otherwise. And regular bank accounts can have a beneficiary listed on a payable-on-death form. The same is true for brokerage and investment accounts.
If you don’t name a secondary beneficiary and the primary beneficiary has died, the assets will go into probate. Probate is the process by which the court distributes your estate. It can take months or years, depending on the state and the complexity of your estate.
When you create a will, you name an executor to carry out your wishes and administer your estate. This includes liquidating or closing accounts, distributing assets to heirs, paying debts and selling assets like your home. Make sure the person you name is willing to serve in this capacity.
Your estate plan should also include a Living Will, a document expressing your wishes for medical treatments you do and do not wish to have if you cannot communicate. In addition, a Power of Attorney is needed so someone you trust can handle your legal and financial affairs if you become incapacitated. A Health Care Power of Attorney lets someone of your choice make healthcare decisions.
Some assets get a “step-up in basis.” For example, it may be better to gift assets like stocks, bonds, or real estate to heirs after death. When these assets are sold, any increase from the so-called “cost basis” or value when the asset was acquired, and the sale price is subject to capital gains taxes. However, the heirs get a step-up in basis. The asset’s market value at your death becomes the cost basis for the heir. Any appreciation before that is untaxed. When the asset is sold, any gains (or losses) are based on the new cost basis. If you gifted these assets while living, they’d assume your original cost basis, which could lead to a big tax bill.
You may want to have a trust. For example, if you want your children to receive money eventually but not while they are too young to be responsible for a large sum, a trust can hold the asset. The trustee will make distributions according to the language of the trust. This lets you determine when your heirs will gain access to assets.
Don’t neglect to update your estate plan. Any time you have a significant life change, such as a birth, death, marriage, or divorce, you must review your estate plan. You’ll want to be sure your named executor is still the right choice and the guardian for your minor children is still the person you want to raise your children. If you move to a new state, you’ll want to consult with an estate planning attorney to be sure your estate plan is still valid, since estate laws are state-specific.
Reference: CNBC (March 19, 2023) “5 key things to know when you create a will and make other end-of-life plans”
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