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Estate Planning Overview

Estate planning is more than just wealth succession through wills or trusts. A durable power of attorney ensures that you do not need a court-appointed guardian of your affairs if you become incapacitated. (Being married does not protect you from this. Your spouse can make many decisions for you but cannot sign for you.) An advanced health care directive, formerly called a living will, directs your end-of-life and pain management decisions, saving your family grief and procuring you the care choices you want. A health care privacy release ensures that your health care agents can get your medical information in order to make informed choices. And if you have minor children, estate planning designates a guardian for them.

Estate Planning FAQs

  • Why do I need estate planning?
    • Your affairs are taken care of by a person you trust if you ever become incapacitated .
    • You make your choices on life-and-death decisions in case of your incapacity rather than letting the law decide.
    • Planning can either ensure your family doesn't have to go to court for probate once you pass away (through a trust) or that your estate goes through the courts to the people you choose.
    • Estate taxes can be eliminated or minimized.
    • Those wanting help from Medicaid to pay for nursing home costs can receive that help.
  • Can't I just hold everything in joint accounts?
    • Joint accounts don't address your separate affairs if you become incapacitated such as your tax return filings, changing insurance beneficiaries, applying for assistance).
    • Joint accounts expose your assets to the creditors of the other account holder. For instance, if you simply put your child's name on your account so that she'll inherit it directly, it is part of her assets in a divorce division and will be attached by creditors if she's sued. And joint accounts often give rise to tax violations, as most people do not realize that when they put someone's name on an account with them, they are legally gifting one-half of the value of the account.
    • Joint accounts can also cause problems to carefully crafted estate plans. Money put into the account by the other holder may be included in the deceased's estate for estate tax purposes; the joint account holder may be pushed over the estate tax exemption limit by the money or property.
  • What is a living trust?
    • A living trust, also called a revocable trust, is created by trust documents governed by the laws of your state. It can be changed by you at any time during your life. Once your properties are transferred into the name of your trust, those properties do not have to be probated at your death. Probate is a court process that takes a minimum of six months and occurs even if you have a will.
    • A living trust has other benefits. You can place your residence into your trust and still receive your homeowner's tax exemption.
  • How can I make sure my property stays in the family and doesn't get lost in divorce or to creditors of my children?
    • There are several ways to do this. One way is to make a revocable (living) trust that upon your death becomes a trust for your children and grandchildren, rather than just distributing the property. Another way is to create an irrevocable trust with the same distribution scheme. These trusts are known as Generation Skipping Trusts, although they do not necessarily skip a generation.
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