The end of life is something we’d all like to put off for as long as possible. It’s a difficult thing to even think about. But, taking estate planning steps is a crucial part of managing your assets and protecting your family.
Unfortunately, most people also would rather put off preparations for the inevitable. Six in 10 American adults don’t have a will, according to a survey by the senior care resource company Caring.com. Most respondents who lack estate planning documents said they “just haven’t gotten around to it.”
Perhaps unsurprising, there is a wide disparity between age groups. Older adults are more likely to have an estate plan in place than younger adults. The survey found that 81% of those age 72 or older and nearly 60% of respondents ages 53 to 71 have a will or living trust. Meanwhile, a startling 78% of millennials (ages 18-36) and 64% of Generation Xers (ages 37-52) don’t have a will.
An estate plan, however, doesn’t begin and end with a will. In some instances, other documents have legal precedence over your will. So, even if you’re an older adult who has started to make end-of-life arrangements, your plan may need work. Below are important estate planning steps to help get your estate in order.
GET A WILL
A will is an essential document that specifies your wishes for when you pass away. It can streamline the probate process as your estate moves through probate court, which can be a very time-consuming and expensive experience for your loved ones.
The probate process can take 6 months to more than two years, depending on the complexity of the estate, according to the Wisconsin State Bar. Further, the estate planning firm Morris, Hall & Kinghorn, PLLC, estimates probate costs American families up to $2 billion per year, of which up to $1.5 billion is paid in attorneys' fees.
CONSIDER CREATING A TRUST
Most people already understand they should have a will, but it’s also important to consider the benefits to setting up a trust. A trust is created while you are alive with instructions on how property is to be managed and then distributed by a trustee upon your death. It can be a way to help prevent beneficiaries from misusing the money you plan to hand down.
Trusts generally cost more to create than wills. But, a will may have to go through the probate process while trusts pass outside of it, saving your heirs time and money. Be sure to seek the counsel of an estate attorney who can help set up a trust that’s appropriate for your situation.
DESIGNATE A POWER OF ATTORNEY
Power of attorney is a written document that allows you to designate someone to act on your behalf, either immediately or upon your incapacity. Most people are proactive in naming a health care power of attorney. In the survey above, more than half of U.S. adults have granted someone this legal authorization.
But, you should also designate a durable financial power of attorney, which gives someone the legal authority to help manage your assets in the event you are unable to properly handle them yourself. This document can prevent the probate court from having to appoint a conservator to handle your affairs. Further, a durable financial power of attorney, who may access your financial information, could help monitor your finances and protect you from becoming a victim of financial fraud or scams.
UPDATE YOUR BENEFICIARIES
When it comes to your financial assets, it’s not your will but the names on your accounts that really matter. All the benefits you have earned and accumulated — pension plan, life insurance, 401(k) and IRA accounts, etc. — can be passed on to a beneficiary after you pass away. These beneficiary designations override your will. Naming the wrong person(s) or failing to update your documents can create a mess for your heirs and leave your wishes unfulfilled.
UNDERSTAND HOW TAXES MAY AFFECT YOUR ESTATE
Most people won’t have to worry about estate taxes. You can have up to $5.45 million in assets before you are subject to federal estate taxes. It’s about double for married couples. Some states, however, also collect estate taxes and their exemptions can be much lower.
If your estate’s value exceeds the federal and/or your state’s exemption, it’s important to meet with a financial adviser and a tax adviser to determine what options may be available to alleviate your tax burden. One option is to gift some of your money. Under IRS rules, you can gift up to $14,000 per person per year. Recipients don’t have to pay taxes on the money, and giving money away to your heirs can help reduce your estate’s value under the estate tax exemption.
You may also need assistance navigating the step-up in basis, which relates to how your assets are valued and taxed. Essentially, assets that you bequeath, including property and investments, are taxed based on their value when they are inherited, not when you acquired them. That can create a substantial tax burden for your beneficiaries since they will inherit assets at current market value.
The most appropriate estate planning steps to take will differ from person to person. But the goal is the same: to help your family financially and save them from emotional stress. Thinking about your demise may be the hardest part. With the help of a financial adviser and estate planning attorney, getting your estate in order should be relatively painless.