Estate Planning Checklist

Dying without an estate plan creates additional costs and eliminates any chance your wishes for loved ones will be followed after your death. Typically, people think about a will when they marry or have children, and then do not think about wills or estate plans until they retire. While a will is important, there are other estate planning documents that are just as important, says the recent article “10 Steps to Writing a Will” from U.S. News & World Report.  To help identify those needs, I prepared an estate planning checklist which you can find below.

Most assets, including retirement accounts and insurance policy proceeds, can be transferred to heirs outside of a will, if they have designated beneficiaries. However, the outcome of an estate may be more impacted by Power of Attorney for financial matters and Medical Power of Attorney documents.  To help figure out what you may need, you can use this article as an estate planning checklist.

Here are nine specific tasks that need to be completed for your estate plan to be effective. The documents should be prepared based upon your state’s law with the help of a qualified estate planning attorney.

  1. Find an estate planning attorney who is experienced with the laws of your state.
  2. Select beneficiaries for your estate plan.
  3. Check beneficiaries on non-probate assets to make sure they are current.
  4. Decide who will be the fiduciaries named in your estate plan (e.g. executor, trustee)
  5. Name a guardian for minor children, if yours are still young.

There are also tasks for your own care while you are living, in case of incapacity:

  1. Name a person for the Power of Attorney role. They will be your representative for legal and financial matters, but only while you are living.
  2. Name a person for the Medical Power of Attorney to make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot.
  3. Create a Directive to Physicians (Living Will), to explain your wishes for medical care, particularly concerning end-of-life care.
  4. Tell the these people that you have chosen them and discuss these roles and their responsibilities with them if you are ready

As you go through your estate planning checklist, be realistic about the people you are naming to serve as fiduciaries. If you have a child who is not good with managing money, a trust can be set up to distribute assets according to your wishes: by age or accomplishments, like finishing college, going to rehab, or maintaining a steady work history, and they should not be in charge of your money.

Do not forget to tell family members where they can find your last will and other estate documents. You should also talk with them about your digital assets. If accounts are protected by passwords or facial recognition, find out if the digital platform has a process for your executor to legally obtain access to your digital assets.

Finally, do not neglect updating your estate plan every three to four years or anytime you have a major life event. An estate plan is like a house: it needs regular maintenance. Old estate plans can disinherit family members or lead to the wrong person being in charge of your estate.  See this article for my ideas as to when to update your estate plan and what to consider.  You might find reviewing the estate planning checklist helpful at that time as well.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/when-to-update-your-estate-plan/

An experienced estate planning attorney will make the process easier and straightforward for you and your loved ones.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 13, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

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Is it Better to Give or let Kids Inherit?

Should an inheritance remain an inheritance, given to children only after their parents die, or should parents use some of the money to help their kids out while they are still living? That’s a question that many families grapple with, reports a recent article “When to Give Inheritance Money to Your Kids,” from The Wall Street Journal.

Not every family can afford to give their children an advance on their inheritance, but for those who can, there are some things to consider:

Some financial advisors believe that “gifting with warm hands” is a better way to go. Parents can enjoy seeing their children and grandchildren benefit from having the help, based on when it is needed. Decoupling an inheritance from parental death is a happier scenario than the alternative.

Others believe that current financial needs, taxes and the tax situations of the parents and children ought to be the deciding factor. First, is there enough money for the parents to live comfortably in retirement? That includes being prepared for the cost of an unexpected health crisis that might lead them to need short- and long-term care. Follow that by understanding the tax situation of both parents and heirs. Once those answers are fully formed, then a discussion about gifting can move forward.

Another school of thought is to stop saving every penny and enjoy life to its fullest right here, right now. Some people are more concerned with maxing out their 401(k) plans than enjoying their lives. A healthy balance between protecting assets for later years, creating wealth for the next generation and having some fun too is the goal for many families.

Regardless of how you see your situation, one thing is sure: if you have any concerns about how your children will handle an inheritance, make a gift while you are living. You’ll get to see how they handle it, responsibility or recklessly. This may inform your planning for the future, including the use of spendthrift trusts.

The pandemic has forced many people to confront their own mortality and consider how they really want to spend the rest of their lives, as well as their assets. Many parents are preparing to make changes in their estate and gifting plans to accommodate needs that have arisen as a result of COVID’s economic impact.

Talk with your children about finances—yours and theirs. Discuss their needs, especially if they have been unemployed for an extended period of time. If they need money for something critical, like paying for health insurance or catching up on student loans, the gift should be made with a clear understanding of its intended purpose.

Your estate planning attorney can help create a plan that works while you are living and after you have passed. You can also see my thoughts on how to leave to your kids in a way that protects them here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/protecting-money-from-a-childs-divorce/

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (April 30, 2021) “When to Give Inheritance Money to Your Kids”

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How Does a Special Needs Trust Work?

Special Needs Trusts hold assets for an individual using government benefits to provide for them without losing the benefits.

Clients uses trusts for a lot of reasons, including probate avoidance, creditor protection, privacy and smooth and efficient estate administration.   Some trusts, such as Special Needs Trusts (aka Supplemental Needs Trusts) are used specifically to maintain government benefits for the beneficiary while still providing for their needs.  Not using the right type of trust can lead to financial devastation explains the article “Take special care with Special Needs trusts” from the Herald Bulletin.

The purpose of a Special Needs Trust is to help people because they have a disability and are or may be supported by government benefits.  Most of these benefits are means-tested, meaning, a beneficiary’s eligibility is dependent upon their income, assets or potentially both.  The rules regarding the benefits are very strict. An inheritance may disqualify a person with a disability from receiving these benefits, possibly putting them in dire circumstances.

However, clients may still want to provide for that loved one, and the Special Needs Trust is the way to do it.  The value of assets placed in a Special Needs Trust does not count against the benefits.  However, this area of the law is complex, and requires the help of an experienced elder law estate planning attorney. Mistakes could have lifelong consequences.

The trustee manages assets and disperses funds on a discretionary basis.  Selecting a trustee is extremely important, since the duties of a Special Needs trust could span decades. The person in charge should be ready to work with competent advisors who are familiar with the government programs and benefits and who can advise the trustee of the consequences of disbursements.

These are just a few of the considerations for a trustee:

  • How should disbursements be made, balancing current needs and future longevity?
  • Does the request align with the rules of the trust and the assistance program requirements?
  • Will anyone else benefit from the expenditure, family members or the trustee? The trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the beneficiary, first and foremost.

Parents who leave life insurance, stocks, bonds, or cash to all children equally may be putting their Special Needs child in jeopardy.  What’s more, children who try to provide for their parents often don’t consider that their parents may require governmental assistance at the end of their lives such as long term Medicaid.  Well-meaning family members who wish to take care of their relative must be made aware of the risk of leaving assets to an individual with disabilities, and in fact, good planning suggests including contingent Special Needs Trusts in your estate planning documents.  After all, a loved one might not have a disability when you create your estate plan, but they might by the time they receive from your estate plan.

An experienced elder law or estate planning attorney will be able to create a Special Needs trust that will work for the individual and for the family and can advise you how to include such planning in your estate documents.

Reference: Herald Bulletin (March 13, 2021) “Take special care with Special Needs trusts”

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