Perspective

ESTATE PLANNING BASICS: KEY ESTATE PLANNING DOCUMENTS (Part 1/3)

Estate Planning Documents

WHY IS ESTATE PLANNING IMPORTANT?

If you have assets, you have an estate. And, if you have an estate, you have an estate plan – even if you have not crafted one with the aid of an estate attorney and wealth manager. Estate distribution must be handled at the end of one’s life, and for those who pass intestate, meaning they pass without a published will, end up having the state courts determine how their assets are distributed. Creating an estate plan avoids leaving the decision up to the court.

Wealth managers advocate for clients to engage in thoughtful estate planning, so they can ensure that asset distribution provides for loved ones in a way that is in line with both the beneficiaries’ needs and the client’s intended legacy. Thoughtful estate planning can also help clients create tax and investment efficiencies and organize assets and documents for effective execution.

In our three-part series, we will examine the key estate planning documents, how assets are transferred to beneficiaries, tax implications that accompany the transfers and, finally, how to get started and maintain your estate plan.

WHAT ARE KEY ESTATE PLANNING DOCUMENTS?

  • Last Will and Testament provides guidance and details on an individual’s wishes regarding asset distribution after he or she has passed. The testator, or individual publishing the will, identifies an executor, the person who will manage the estate until its final distribution, and trustees, those who manage trusts created by the will. A will written for those with minor children will identify guardians for those children. A will may also provide details on the testator’s desire to be buried or cremated. A will may be amended during a testator’s lifetime and should be reviewed periodically to make sure it still aligns with the testator’s wishes.
  • Trust documents allow for its creator, or grantor, to define: the assets that will fund the trust, how trust property will be managed and conditions for distribution to beneficiaries. Trusts can be irrevocable, which means the grantor cannot amend the trust once it has been created. Or, the trust can be revocable, meaning the grantor can amend the trust until his or her passing, at which time the trust becomes irrevocable. Trusts are especially useful for avoiding court, providing for beneficiaries with special needs or unique circumstances, and for ensuring that assets will be utilized in a way that aligns with the grantor’s wishes and legacy.
  • Letter of Intent may accompany a will or trust document and may be published to the estate executor, trustees and beneficiaries. The letter provides further detail from the decedent on his or her philosophy and desires for the estate assets so that his or her legacy may be understood and carried forward.
  • Power of Attorney is especially useful when its publisher, the principal, has become physically or mentally disabled due to physical trauma or aging, as it allows for an appointed agent to manage the principal’s financial and legal affairs on his or her behalf. A power of attorney can be either temporary or permanent and is revoked on a principal’s passing.
  • Advance Directive for Health Care provides detailed guidance to caretakers and medical professionals regarding wishes for health care when someone is unable to communicate for himself or herself. The advance directive may be used to appoint a health care agent to coordinate care.

Understanding these pieces of an estate plan will be helpful as we look ahead to how these documents can assist in accomplishing estate planning goals. Next week, we will explore how assets transfer to beneficiaries and the financial and tax implications of an estate plan.