What is estate planning?

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Estate planning is the process of arranging who will receive your assets when you die. One goal of estate planning is to make sure your wealth and other assets go to those you intend (and not to others), with a particular emphasis on minimizing taxes so that your beneficiaries can keep more of your wealth. But good estate planning also can reduce family strife, and provide clear end-of-life directives should an individual become incapacitated before ultimately passing away.

Here’s a rundown on estate planning and why you absolutely need it, regardless of how much wealth you have.

Types of estate planning

Estate planning can come in a variety of forms, from basic beneficiary designations when you open a bank or brokerage account to more complex and comprehensive plans. Below are a few of the most common elements of an estate plan and what you might want to consider.

Beneficiary designations

Whenever you open a financial account, typically a bank, brokerage or insurance account, you’ll be asked to provide a beneficiary for the account. The beneficiary is first in line to receive any funds from the account on your death. You may divide your assets among multiple beneficiaries, if you wish, and name contingent beneficiaries in case the primary beneficiaries are not alive.

Naming a beneficiary is quite important: Your beneficiary designation typically supersedes any other declaration in your estate. That’s why experts urgently recommend you to name your beneficiaries. If you die without a will, accounts with beneficiaries named may at least still go to your heirs.

Many retirement accounts such as a traditional IRA or Roth IRA have named beneficiaries.

Will

A will is another key document in the estate plan, and at death a will directs the assets owned by you individually and without a designated beneficiary. Property that’s owned jointly, such as with a spouse, passes directly to the surviving owner or owners. An executor will be appointed by the court to carry out the will and manage the distribution of assets when the time comes.

Wills that come into effect are examined in probate court, a public process that allows potential creditors to make a claim against the estate. Only after the estate is settled with creditors will the remaining assets be distributed to heirs in accordance with the will.

Probate can be a notoriously tortuous process, and it’s not unusual for probate to take a year or even two to be completed. And it could be pricey as well, with fees up to 5 percent of the estate.

Wills can be a cornerstone of an estate plan, but many people are turning to trusts today because they can make settling the estate much less cumbersome, tricky and slow. But wills and trusts offer numerous benefits and disadvantages, and may not be suitable in all cases.

Trusts

Trusts come in many varieties, and while it may sound complex, a trust is relatively simply at its core. A trust is a legal vehicle that allows a third party, the trust, to hold assets on behalf of a beneficiary. Trusts allow you a number of estate-planning options, not least of which is the ability to sail through probate court while maintaining a relatively high level of privacy.

Trusts can also allow you to control how your assets are directed after your death, not only to whom the money will be given but also under what circumstances. This control can be a valuable feature when directing assets to individuals with questionable ability to handle money. You can also choose the trustee(s) you want to manage and direct the trust on your passing.

While trusts can be complex, one of the simplest and easiest to execute is the revocable trust. Such a trust helps shepherd your assets through probate, and directs the assets according to your wishes. You can even serve as the trustee and make changes during your lifetime. Trusts become worthwhile with surprisingly little money, as well, with at least one expert suggesting they begin to make up for the start-up costs for those who have at least $150,000 in assets.

More complex trusts with various stipulations (such as keeping spouses or profligate children at bay) may require the expertise of a skilled lawyer. And of course, you can also use trusts to bypass at least some taxes, one of the reasons for the perennial popularity of trusts.

Living wills

Death is not the only situation in which you may be unable to make a decision. You may be alive yet incapacitated, and in this scenario it’s quite useful to have a clear statement of your wishes. That’s where a living will can be valuable, because it lays out how you want to be treated during your end-of-life care, including specific treatments to take or refrain from taking.

A living will is often combined with a durable power of attorney, a legal document that can allow a surrogate to make decisions on behalf of the incapacitated individual.

Benefits of a good estate plan

Estate planning helps you avoid many unfortunate situations, and while it can take some time and money upfront, you can avoid many worse problems later on. For example, if you don’t provide a clear estate plan, the state will do what appears best in its judgment, which is unlikely to coincide with what you would choose to do. Don’t leave your estate up to the state.

Minimizes taxes

If you plan ahead, you can minimize the amount of your estate that goes to Uncle Sam and maximize the amount that goes to Aunt Sally. Clever structuring of flexible retirement accounts such as a Roth IRA can help funnel more tax-free money to your heirs, while other tax-planning strategies such as strategic charitable giving can help you mitigate the tax bite.

Now is a particularly advantageous time for a Roth IRA conversion due to some changes in the tax code and historically low tax rates, though this strategy won’t work for everyone.

Prevents family squabbles

Your family may normally get along well, but it’s still wise to write a will so that things remain that way. The possibility of a cash grab may rile up some relatives, while others may hide a sentimental treasure that they hope goes unnoticed. Regardless of your wealth, careful estate planning helps prevent your family from squabbling, whether it’s a little tiff or an all-out lawsuit.

Clarifies your directives

You may have always intended for your niece Bertha to get that heirloom, but unless it’s written out in the estate, anyone can make a dash for it. An estate plan ensures your assets go to the person you want to have them. By clearly spelling out your wishes – often with the help of a lawyer – you can help your loved ones remember you fondly or at least get what you intended.

Avoids the time and expense of probate court

Set up your estate right – think, a well-crafted trust – and you’ll sail through probate court, likely the most annoying and time-consuming step of the entire process. Because of the ease of using a trust, more and more people are doing an end-run around the hassles of probate and setting up their assets this way. Plus, you don’t need as much as you might think to make it worthwhile.

Keeps your family assets together

Trusts can also be a valuable way to ensure that your money stays in the family. Structured correctly, a trust can keep a profligate nephew from blowing your lifetime of hard work in a generation. It may also keep money in the family, if a spouse tries to extract some of it.

Protects your heirs

A good estate plan can also protect your heirs in a number of ways. If your children are minors, your estate plan can instruct who will take care of them and how they will receive money. It can also protect heirs from recrimination, if a relative would otherwise accuse them of stealing. A living will can also help heirs avoid some of the difficult health decisions during a parent’s end of life.

Bottom line

Estate planning can help prevent a number of potentially troubling problems from arising, even if you don’t have a lot of money. By determining how you want to handle your estate before you pass, you’ll save your loved ones a lot of effort, money and grief when it comes to dividing your estate. And more importantly, you’ll get what you want, even if you’re not around to see it.

Featured image by Thomas Barwick of Getty Images.

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