National Estate Planning Awareness Week runs from October 19-25, 2020. First celebrated in 2008, this week highlights the importance of estate planning and its vital role in your overall financial health. By some estimates, up to 50% of Americans have not prepared any estate planning documents, which include documents effective both during life and after death. The uncertainty of this year only highlights the importance of creating or updating your estate planning documents.
Many people assume that estate planning documents are necessary only for individuals or families with a high net worth; however, everyone can benefit from having an estate plan. The most significant benefit is that estate planning documents, which can include a Will, Revocable Trust, and/or various types of Irrevocable Trusts, allow you to choose the beneficiaries of your estate, the amounts they receive, and how they receive those amounts. Without an estate plan, the intestacy laws of your state will determine to whom and how your estate will pass. It is entirely possible that intestacy laws may not distribute your estate how you would expect it would pass, or how you would want it to be distributed. An estate plan can also take into account various concerns involving the distribution of an estate, such as beneficiaries who may need time to develop prudent money management skills; those with special needs to ensure continued eligibility for various public benefits; or beneficiaries with significant wealth on their own or liability concerns who want to keep assets out of their own estates. Intestacy laws do not account for these scenarios.
Developing or updating an estate plan also ensures that your estate has accounted for the various taxes that may be assessed as a result of your death, or any changes in the law. In the last year alone a major new law with respect to the distribution of inherited qualified plans, the SECURE Act, took effect; and there may be accelerated changes with respect to the Federal Estate Tax on the horizon. Creating an estate plan or revisiting your older documents allows for your estate to be up to date with the current legal landscape.
Estate planning documents also include Powers of Attorney for both financial and medical decisions, as well as Advance Medical Directives (“Living Wills”) for end-of-life decisions. These documents are effective during your lifetime, and allow another individual (or individuals) to make decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so. Financial and healthcare Powers of Attorney and an Advance Medical Directive clarify who may make these important decisions, as well as your wishes, before a true “need” arises.
Just as you regularly review your budget and meet with a financial adviser to discuss short- and long-term objectives, meeting with an attorney to update (or create!) your estate plan is an important step to ensure your personal and financial wellbeing.