Editor's Note: The information in this column is not intended as legal advice but to provide a general understanding of the law. Any readers with a legal problem, including those whose questions are addressed here, should consult an attorney for advice on their particular circumstances.
You’ve heard all the arguments in favor of estate planning, you know it’s the right thing to do, you want to get your planning done... you just aren’t sure how to get started. This is understandable; estate planning can feel like an overwhelming endeavor when you’re presented with everything at once. The trick to getting started with your planning is to take it one step at a time.
Write down your goals. You may have a number of intertwined goals for your estate plan (this is especially true for blended and multigenerational families), or one simple-but-important goal such as “ensure my minor children have a place to go” or “keep the family business intact.” Knowing your goals from the outset will make all subsequent decisions much easier.
Make a list of the people you trust. Throughout your estate plan you’ll be nominating people to take over financial, healthcare, and guardianship responsibilities if something happens to you. Have a rough list of people you would trust in these roles. Begin with your initial goal and go from there. For example, if your initial goal was guardianship of minors, make a list of people you would trust with the care your child(ren), and move from there to financial and healthcare decision-makers.
Make a list of people you don’t trust. If you’re having trouble coming up with people for the list above, it sometimes helps to consider the people you would NOT want to be responsible for your child, your finances, or your healthcare. Write down those people and work backward from there. If your kids must be kept from crazy Uncle Joe at all costs, would your cousin Emily be an acceptable alternative, even if she does have a different parenting style?
Know your assets. Make a list of all your assets and their approximate values. This will help your estate planner determine what kind of asset protection you need in your plan. Assets include:
• Your Home
• Investment/Vacation Property
• Bank Accounts
• Savings/Investment Accounts
• Retirement Accounts
• Life Insurance
• Family Owned Business
• Farm/Ranch Property or equipment
• Art, Jewelry and other personal property of significant value
Bring In the Professionals. Estate planning is a very technical process, and the laws may frequently change, so you’ll definitely want professional help with the details of the process. The good news is that now that you’ve completed the beginning steps, the follow-through with your chosen professional advisor will be a snap! If you already have a relationship with a trusted attorney, insurance agent, financial advisor or CPA you’ll want to start there. Let that person know your goals and that you’re ready to begin planning in earnest. He or she will be able to guide you onto the next steps or give you the name of an estate planning professional who will help you build your ideal plan.
Although it looks overwhelming from the outset, estate planning is really just a series of small steps, each of which leads you to the achievement of your ultimate goal: Preserving your assets and protecting your loved ones. Now that you know it’s so easy... what are you waiting for?
Sam A. Moak is an attorney with the Huntsville law firm of Moak & Moak, P.C. He is licensed to practice in all fields of law by the Supreme Court of Texas, is a Member of the State Bar College, and is a member of the Real Estate, Probate and Trust Law Section of the State Bar of Texas. www.moakandmoak.com.