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 need an estate plan. This is true even if you don't have a lot of assets. It's also true if you're young, or if you don't have close family members.
Estate planning means preparing for the inevitabilities of life. People get sick or hurt, and you need a plan in place to determine what kind of medical care you'll receive if this happens to you. People become incapacitated, unable to make important decisions on their own, or unable to live independently. And of course, people die.
Unfortunately, far too many people don't know what a complete estate plan includes or how to go about creating one. Making an estate plan involves way more than writing up a Will, and you should ideally get legal help with it so you can use the right estate planning tools in the right way.
If you're unsure where to get started, or if you want to learn more about the most important aspects of estate planning, let me give you some starting points.
Identify your goals for creating an estate plan: Do you want to provide for your family, protect assets, prepare for incapacity, take control of your legacy, or do all of the above?
List the asset you want to include in your plan: When making a plan, you need to consider all of the money and property you own either independently or jointly.
Identify the loved ones you want to provide for and protect: There may be many people in your life whom you need to consider in your plan, including not a spouse, children, friends, and even pets. And your loved ones may all have different needs. For example, your minor children will need a guardian if you can't raise them to adulthood.
Decide whether you want to make charitable contributions: You may want to make bequests in your will to a charity, or take other steps to give such as creating a foundation or a charitable remainder trust.
Determine whether your potential heirs or beneficiaries have any special needs: In some cases, you'll need to take extra steps to ensure that an inheritance is transferred appropriately and used wisely.
Determine whether you'll owe estate tax: While the estate tax, a/k/a death tax, does not affect most people, if your net worth is over 11 million (22 million for a couple married couple) dollars, you may have an issue. Most don’t. Start by determining your current net worth. This can be done by totaling your current assets and liabilities, then adding the value of any life insurance.
Decide whether avoiding probate is one of your goals: In most cases, assets transfer through the probate process, which can be complicated and expensive. You may want to avoid this, and that will require different estate planning techniques.
Think about what will happen if you become incapacitated: If an illness or injury leaves you temporarily or permanently incapacitated, you'll need to consider questions such as who will make decisions for you and what kinds of care you'll receive or reject. You'll also need to think about who will provide you with care and how you'll pay for it.
Make sure you have the right insurance policies: If you don't have enough money to provide for dependent loved ones, you may need to obtain additional coverage, such as life insurance.
Implement your plan: This could involve taking steps such as changing how property is owned, creating legal documents, or transferring assets into a trust. You should likely have a lawyer help with this step.
Another good way to get started is to sketch out or flow chart your existing estate plan. Review your appointees, i.e., Executor, Guardian of the Person/Estate, Agent for your Health-Care Power of Attorney, etc. Maybe some of these folks have moved or changed and it might be time to update them.
Seek the assistance of an estate planning professional who is trained and familiar with estate planning and probate. The advice they provide will assist you in making the best and least complicated plan.
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