When preparing to create or modify estate planning documents, many clients are at a loss for where to begin. There are so many questions that pop up once you start the process that it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
When you’re getting ready to meet with your estate planning lawyer, where do you start? While these meetings are bound to raise some questions you hadn’t thought of, there are things you can do to prepare.
The more thought you put into certain goals and wishes (including those below), the easier it is for your attorney to create a set of documents that reflects your intentions.
Executor: Think about who would serve as your executor or personal representative charged with settling your estate. For many clients, this person is a child or grandchild, or other family member if there are no children. Some people choose not to have any family member take on this role, and instead request the attorney, or a financial institution, to fulfill the role of executor.
Healthcare proxy: If you become incapacitated, who do you trust to make medical decisions for you? Again, this role is often filled by a child or other family member. It is wise to discuss your wishes with your healthcare proxy prior to any health emergencies that may arise. While your healthcare documents will specify your wishes, your agent may have questions that you haven’t thought of.
Financial power of attorney: Similar to the healthcare proxy, this is the person who acts as your financial agent if you become incapacitated.
Guardian for your minor children: If you have children, or are planning for children, it’s a good idea to name a guardian and a backup in case the first is unable or unwilling to serve. If you choose a guardian who lives in a different state or country from where you are currently located, you may need to also appoint a temporary, local guardian until that person can travel to be with your child and assume guardianship.
Personal belongings: Consider whether there are certain items (e.g., heirlooms, cars, jewelry, or artwork) that you would like to be given to someone specific. If so, you will want to specifically include those items in your estate planning documents. Your lawyer can advise you on the best method for stating these wishes.
Distributions to young beneficiaries: Consider how beneficiaries will receive their share of your estate. If assets are passing to surviving children, do you want them to receive their share upon turning 18? Would you rather a trustee provides specified access to the funds until the child reaches a more mature age? You can set age requirements on inheritances and leave assets in a trust until the beneficiary reaches a greater age. This is not uncommon if the assets are substantial. You can also appoint specific trustees to manage the trust on behalf of your child, and this person can be a family member, trusted friend, or your attorney.
Equalization: If you provided a substantial gift to a child in your lifetime (e.g., you helped them through college or paid for a wedding) that you have not yet provided to other children, do you want to provide an equalization mechanism as part of their inheritance distributions? If your adult children have very different financial situations, will that impact how you want your assets distributed?
Distributions to adult beneficiaries: Do you have adult heirs who might benefit from having their share better protected in case of divorce or creditor claims? Let your attorney know if any of your beneficiaries have special needs, legal or credit problems, suffer from addiction, or seem likely to divorce in the future. You may wish to pass on inheritances into a trust in those situations, to better protect assets as well as your children.
Charitable bequests: Do you wish to provide gifts to any nonprofits as part of your estate? You can state specific organizations as well as percentages or amounts, or you can make a general request that your representative donate a specified portion of your estate to charities.
These are big questions, and you may not have all the answers right away. But don’t let that be a reason to put off creating or updating your estate plans. Talk with your estate planning attorney to resolve your options and wishes.