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  • Writer's pictureMichael Romano

Estate Planning 101

Providing for your family is often a priority that drives our decisions and actions. Properly planning your estate, no matter how big or small, is another way to protect both you and your loved ones. Estate planning is the process of deciding how your assets will be preserved, controlled, and eventually distributed in the event of your death. It also involves, among other things, deciding who will make health care decisions for you, manage your property, or care for your minor children, if you are unable to do so yourself. Successfully addressing these matters can bring you peace of mind and ensure that your goals are accomplished, while minimizing the emotional and financial cost to your family should the unexpected happen.

 

Below you will find basic information about the types of estate planning documents you can implement to help you and your family be better prepared for the future.

 

Wills: A will is a legal document that dictates who receives your assets following your death. The will also names a person (called the “executor”) who will be responsible for distributing the assets and making sure your wishes are followed. Your will is only effective after your death, and only after your will is submitted to the court to be “probated.” Probate is the process of asking the Court to confirm your will’s validity and giving your executor legal authority to carry out your wishes. In addition to an executor, your will may also name beneficiaries (those who receive your assets), trustees (those who manage assets in trusts formed under your will), and guardians (those who take custody of any minor children you may have). If you die without a will, your assets are distributed to your closest living family members according to your state’s law, which may not always coincide with your wishes.

 

Trusts: A trust is a legal document in which a person (called the “trustee”) agrees to manage property for the benefit of another. The creator of the trust (often called the “grantor”) transfers assets, such as money, real estate, or investments, to the trustee, who then manages the assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries. Your estate planning can involve you setting up a trust for yourself, with you as the sole grantor, trustee, and beneficiary. Trusts can serve various purposes: they can act like a will and dispose of property held in the trust at your death, they can provide asset protection, and they can help manage assets for minors or individuals with special needs. By forming a trust and funding it with your property ahead of time, you may be able to avoid the probate process, saving both time and money for your beneficiaries. Unlike a will, trusts are not required to be filed with court, which can help protect your privacy, too.

 

Health Care Proxy: A health care proxy is a legal document that allows you to appoint an individual (called your health care “agent”) to make medical or other health care decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so yourself. It is important to discuss with your agent the treatments you would or would not want, if you become incapacitated. This will enable them to make the right decisions on your behalf, especially if those decisions concern substantial treatment, such as artificial nutrition and hydration.

 

Powers of Attorney: A power of attorney (often abbreviated as “POA”) is a legal document you can sign that grants someone (called your “agent”) the authority to manage your property during your lifetime. Your agent can use your money to pay your bills, manage your investments, and make many other financial decisions for you. Your POA creates a “fiduciary relationship” between you and your agent, meaning that your agent is legally obligated to act in your best interests. Agents are useful if you become unable to manage your own financial affairs. However, an agent’s ability to act does not have to be limited to such circumstances.

 

Designation of Standby Guardian: If you have children who are under the age of eighteen, you have the ability to sign a designation of standby guardian form, which appoints a specific person to immediately take custody of your minor children in the event you and your spouse pass away or become incapacitated. This form gives your standby guardian immediate authority to take custody of your children for 60 days, giving them time to apply to the appropriate court for permanent guardianship. This form can help prevent disagreements about who will take care of your children and reduce confusion among your remaining family. You may also make guardianship designations in your Will, but Wills often are not located for some time after a person dies. We suggest speaking openly with the people you would want to take custody of your children, to make sure they are ready, willing, and able to do so.

 

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These five documents are the most common ways to begin planning your estate. We understand this process and the paperwork involved can seem daunting. In addition, many individuals put off their estate planning because it involves a discussion of their mortality. However, delaying these conversations can lead to unnecessary hardships and consequences. By starting the dialogue about your estate plan, you can express your wishes clearly and ensure they are respected. Proper planning demonstrates your love and consideration for your heirs while providing your family with both comfort and security.

 

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