Estate Planning Strategies: Keeping Your Money in Your Family
Estate planning strategies may feel challenging to sift through—both emotionally and technically — but understanding the options available to you and making choices confidently is the best way to protect your assets and set up your family for future success.
The following guide offers a starting point for understanding why estate planning is so important and what estate planning strategies may work best for you.
What is estate planning?
Put simply, estate planning refers to the plans you put in place to manage how things will be handled in the event that you are incapacitated or die. There are multiple elements to estate planning, and they have varying levels of importance depending on your own personal situation and preferences. The most common estate planning documents are as follows:
- Will- This is the document that is most familiar with people. While the term may call to mind pop culture images of bereaved heirs gathering for a formal and dramatic reading of the deceased's final wishes, the reality is often far less theatrical. Having a document that clearly lays out the distribution of your property and assets provides clarity and actionable steps for your loved ones.
- Power of Attorney- This is another term that many people have heard but do not always fully understand. This legal document assigns an individual the right to act on your behalf in the event that you are unable to do so yourself. There are two primary purposes for Power of Attorney, and they can be assigned individually to different people best situated to act or both granted to the same individual:
- Medical Power of Attorney- This document grants an individual the power to make medical choices for you in the event that you are incapacitated and unable to make them for yourself.
- Financial Power of Attorney- This document gives an individual the power to make financial choices for you in the event that you cannot make them yourself.
In addition, estate planning often involves accounts and financial plans that you've put into place in advance. The most common include the following:
- Trusts- Trusts act as accounts where assets can be housed for beneficiaries. You can use trusts in coordination with a will to make sure that your assets are protected and will get to the beneficiaries you want.
- Beneficiary Designations- If you have life insurance or retirement benefits, you likely assigned beneficiaries when creating these policies. Those named beneficiaries are your designees, and it's important to make sure these designations remain updated to ensure your wishes are smoothly followed.
Who needs estate planning strategies?
It's easy to get the impression that estate planning is only a concern for the very wealthy, but the fact is that everyone needs an estate plan. We all have an "estate," which is just the legal term for our total assets. Whether that's money in a simple savings account, the family home you own, or an heirloom, that "estate" can be the center of confusion, arguments, and burden if there is not a plan in place for it.
When someone dies, their assets are legally managed through a process called probate. If there is no satisfactory estate plan in place, this process can become quite cumbersome and expensive. Far too often, significant portions of the estate are eaten away by the costs of determining what will happen to them. Without an estate plan, you are setting your assets up for getting removed from the family through legal fees and other hurdles.
Estate planning for elderly parents especially allows a family to keep money and property where it belongs: within a family unit.
What should go into your estate planning strategies?
An estate plan is as unique as the individual building it, and your considerations will be shaped by your specific portfolio of assets, debts, and needs. Here are some of the considerations that typically shape an estate plan:
- Family Composition- Your estate planning strategies change based on the composition of your family. If you have minor children, your estate planning will likely include plans for their care and trusts to ensure they have adequate coverage of their needs throughout childhood. If you are unmarried, naming a power of attorney becomes increasingly important since there is no spouse to act as the default decision maker. What your family looks like will help determine the choices you need to make.
- Asset Totals- Everyone needs an estate plan, but just what goes into it will vary by the size and complexity of the estate. If your assets are primarily focused on just a few accounts and properties, the work of planning for them will be simpler. If your assets are diverse and spread across a wide range of accounts and properties, you will need a more complicated plan. Understanding different trust options to fully protect your assets will be crucial.
- Taxes- Understanding how estate taxes and inheritance taxes work on both the federal and state level can give you a better idea of how to leverage the estate planning strategies available to keep as much of your money as possible in the family.
How can a lawyer help with estate planning?
Estate planning lawyers are experts at asking the right questions and helping you understand the options available as they relate to the answers. Making decisions about your estate is often challenging. Many people find it helpful to have a dedicated professional who can provide them an unbiased place to process their plans and put them into action. An estate planning lawyer can provide clarity and peace of mind. Knowing that your wishes will be upheld once your life ends can give you the freedom to enjoy it more fully while you can.