Without a will or other estate planning documents, your property is distributed according to the law of intestate succession in the state where you live at the time of your death. That means any wishes you might have as to how your assets are distributed will not be considered, says the article “Make Your Wishes Known” from the Concord Monitor.
If you want to have a say in what happens to your property, including financial accounts and personal items, you need a will. However, that’s not the only document you need. Here’s a list of the documents that are part of an estate plan.
Last will and testament. This transfers property through the probate process. It ensures that you get to tell others how you want your assets distributed. It may include naming a guardian to be responsible for a minor or incapacitated heir’s personal care and assets.
If you have minor children, you may wish to include a testamentary trust so assets can be managed, and their distribution controlled. If your family includes an individual with special needs, you’ll want a Special Needs Trust (SNT), so they do not lose their eligibility for government benefits.
There are many different types of trusts, and they serve different purposes. A very commonly used trust is the revocable trust.
Revocable Trust. This type of trust can distribute property without going through probate. It also preserves privacy, since documents do not become public. To avoid probate, the trust must be funded during your lifetime, by changing the title on assets from your name to the name of your revocable trust. That may include bank and investment accounts, personal property and real estate. Income, dividends, gains and losses continue to be reported on your tax returns, while you are living.
If you own a business, talk with your estate planning attorney about whether the ownership of the business should be transferred to a trust.
Married couples should speak with their estate planning attorney about having a joint trust together, or if they should each have separate trusts for estate tax planning, creditor protection, protecting children from prior marriages, or ensuring the continuation of a family business.
You may need a pour-over will with your revocable trust, so assets may be transferred into the revocable trust that are outside of the trust at the time of your death. Your estate planning attorney will be able to discuss this in detail, to see if it is a good option.
Joint ownership. If assets are owned in joint tenancy, property automatically transfers upon death to the surviving joint owner. It is not affected by your will and is one way to avoid probate. However, there may be a loss of control and there may be gift, estate, or income tax consequences.
Beneficiary designations. Life insurance, retirement assets, annuities and other Pay on Death accounts all have a person named to receive the asset upon the death of the owner. Every asset you own with a beneficiary designation should be checked every few years to make sure the right person is set to receive the asset. The beneficiary designation supersedes anything written in your will. There should always be a primary and a secondary beneficiary named, just in case the primary beneficiary predeceases you or does not want to accept the asset.
Power of Attorney. Everyone should have a Power of Attorney, in the event of incapacity. This permits someone to act as your agent in any financial matters. There is also the Health Care Power of Attorney, which gives another person the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are not able to communicate your wishes. This will usually also include health care directives related to end-of-life dignity decisions.
All these documents should be the foundation of your estate plan. Each person’s situation is different, but an experienced estate planning attorney will help determine what you need.
Reference: Concord Monitor (April 22, 2019) “Make Your Wishes Known”