Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Is Estate Planning?

The definition of Estate Planning is easy: it is a plan for your estate.  Your estate is what you own; it is your stuff. 

If you become mentally incapacitated, perhaps by accident or illness, you can no longer manage your stuff.  You can't buy or sell what you need, pay you bills, or file your taxes.  Someone will have to do this for you.  If you plan for this with Powers of Attoney or Trusts, you get to choose who helps you manage your stuff.  If you don't, a judge will choose someone for you after an expensive court proceeding.  You may not agree with the judges choice and it may be a stranger who is charging you hourly.

When you pass away, the ownership of you stuff must pass to someone else (sorry).  If you plan in advance for this, you get to choose who gets what, when they get it and how they get it.  You even get to avoid taxes that will be due if no planning is done.  You can do this by getting a Will or Revocable Living Trust.  You can also control who gets what with beneficiary designations such as with life insurance and retirement accounts.  Bank accounts can be designated Payable on Death (POD) to your beneficiary.  You can also own an asset jointly with someone else so that they become the sole owner if you die.  If you do not plan in advance, the law sets forth who gets what.

A typical Estate Plan may have a Will, Trust, Financial Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Living Will.  This planning is really not so much for you but for your loved ones.  If you have an Estate Plan, check to see if it needs an update.  If you don't have a plan, get one.  Your loved one's will thank you someday.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What Is An Estate?

As an estate planning attorney, the term "estate" has a specific meaning to me.  Yet I am constantly reminded that the term "estate" often means something else to others.  For example, prospective clients often say to me "I don't need estate planning, I only need a Will". 

What does the word "estate" mean to you?  I used to picture a mansion in the English countryside surrounded by a large well manicured lawn behind an iron gate and brick walls.  Law school changed that meaning for me. 

Your estate is simply what you own in your own name or jointly with others.  So your estate may include a house, car, bank accounts and investment accounts like mutual funds or other stocks and bonds.  Your retirement plan, such as an IRA or 401k is part of your estate.  The value of your insurance policy is part of your estate even though someone else is getting the money.  Other estate assets are debts owed to you and the value of any business you may own.  Your estate even includes your "stuff" like the contents of your home.

So we all have an "estate".  You can plan ahead to decide what should happen to your estate should you die or become incapacitated.  There is a term for planning ahead like that, wait ... it is on the tip of my tongue ... Estate Planning!