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You may be surprised to learn every single person has an estate – not just the wealthy, or people with large houses on expansive property. An estate is made up of every single thing you own – checking and savings accounts, your car, home, furniture, personal possessions, investments, life insurance, vacation home, and so on.
People often assume – incorrectly – that an estate plan is the same thing as a will. Though a will (or a trust) typically serves as the foundational document in an estate plan, a true estate plan is so much more. A will provides instruction on how to distribute your money and property after you die. An estate plan enables you to give directions for your health care, finances, and guardianship of your children – and sometimes applies while you are alive.
Rarely is anyone eager to talk about what happens when we die. Others procrastinate planning simply because they do not think they have enough, or they do not want to put their loved ones through the process of thinking about their death. But, at some point, your family will need to decide what to do when you become incapacitated or pass away. Without a plan in place, your health care decisions may not be known or respected in the event of a crisis, or the care of your children may rest with someone you would not choose for the role, or your loved ones will need to go through a lengthy court process to follow the state’s rules on what happens with your money and property after you die.
Most estate plans include at minimum either a will or a trust (or some combination of the two), a financial power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney or healthcare proxy, and a living will or advanced directive. For parents of minor children, a plan also should include guardianship designation.
A will is a document with instructions of how you want your money and your property distributed after you die and designates a person of your choosing to ensure your wishes are carried out. A will is only effective after your death and must go through probate court for validation in public view before any distribution occurs. A trust is another way to transfer your assets but differs from a will in key ways. A trust is effective immediately upon signature, rather than upon your death, and does not require going through the probate process. There are many kinds of trusts you may wish to create to meet your goals while living or to transfer your assets after your death.
Everyone needs an estate plan because, at some point, the hard reality is that all of us will die. And if you do not have a plan in place when you die or become incapacitated, the government will apply its own rules, which rarely match what you want. Family members may find themselves in conflict over how to distribute your assets or care for you if seriously injured. Plus, without a plan, your family has to process that loss or tragedy while also figuring out what to do with your stuff. You have the power to decide everything about what happens to your family and your things! Taking time to make a plan now will significantly ease things for your family later.
If you are like most people, the probably not! Currently, estate taxes only apply to estates valued at over $11.5 million.