Keeping tabs on the estate-planning rules during the past few years has been a little like watching Olympic-level table tennis: The action moves quickly, and it’s difficult to keep up. However, no matter how laws and rules change, there are a few basic tasks that are actually pretty evergreen and that everyone should execute. Five such estate-planning to-dos are outlined below.
1) Update Beneficiary Designations. Even people who have never set foot in an attorney’s office may have laid the groundwork for an estate plan if they filled out beneficiary designation forms for their financial accounts. Those designations, in fact, trump other estate-planning documents when it comes to distributing assets, so it’s worthwhile to periodically review them to make sure they’re up-to-date with your current situation—if you’ve gotten married or divorced, for example. (How would your spouse feel if you inadvertently left your 401(k) account to your brother?) People who have drafted estate-planning documents such as wills should ask their attorneys to help them review beneficiary designations to ensure that they sync up with other estate-planning documents.
2) Designate Legal Guardians. Parents of young children should designate legal guardians who will look after their children if the parents should die or otherwise be unable to care for their minor children. It is important to focus the discussion on actual child-rearing abilities and willingness to do the job. What is not helpful is to get hung up on hurting anyone’s feelings or bypassing friends or family members who might expect to be guardians but aren’t the best choice. Most importantly, a guardian should be willing and able (emotionally and financially) to take care of your children if the need arises, so an essential step is to discuss the responsibilities with the potential guardian beforehand.
3) Create a Living Will and Last Will and Testament. A living will tells your health-care providers and your loved ones how you would like to be cared for if you should become terminally ill and unable to express your wishes yourself. It is called a “medical directive” in some states. This document details your views toward life-support equipment. Not to be confused with a living will, a last will and testament details how you’d like your assets and possessions distributed after your death.
4) Draft Powers of Attorney. A basic estate plan should also address what would happen to your affairs if you are still living but incapacitated. A power of attorney is a document that specifies who will handle your affairs if you are unable to do so. You’ll need to draft two separate documents: one that names your power of attorney for health-care decisions and another for financial matters (often called a durable power of attorney). The person you entrust with your power of attorney for health care will, ideally, live in close geographic proximity to you. The person you name on your durable power of attorney form should be detail-oriented and comfortable with financial matters.
5) Name an Executor. Your executor will gather all of your assets after you’re gone and make sure they are distributed in accordance with your will. Ideally, your executor will be someone who’s comfortable with numbers and good with details, and will also be able to find the time to work on your estate. It’s common to name family members as executors, but in more complicated situations it might be preferable to use a professional to serve as your executor. It’s a good idea to tell your executor that you’ve named him or her, and also provide details on how to obtain access to important documents, such as your will and a master directory detailing all of your accounts.
This information is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as legal or financial planning advice. Please consult a legal and/or financial professional for advice specific to your individual circumstances.