Before I attended law school, I thought that estate plans were for people with significant wealth. Terms like “estate” and “trust” conjured up images of mansions and fancy cars and vacation homes in the Hamptons. What would someone like me—a thirty-something with more loan debt than money in the bank—need with an estate plan? Weren’t estate plans for grandparents?
Law school gave me a quick education. Practicing law, an even quicker one. Turns out? Estate plans are not just for the excessively rich and grandparents (or excessively rich grandparents, as the case may be). Everyone should have an estate plan. Even if you don’t have property on Cape Cod, you should have an estate plan. In fact, even if your primary assets are the car you’ve been driving since high school and a modest bank account, you should probably have an estate plan.
The reality is: estate plans do much more than spread around wealth after a death. Yes, an estate plan will allow you to decide who gets what after you die, but there are other functions of a plan, too. Here’s a quick planning primer:
Plan for Medical Emergencies
I don’t mean to spoil your day with all this doomsday talk, but let’s just say that you are in a terrible accident and, although you are alive (thankfully), you are in a coma. Who is going to make health care decisions for you, when you are unable to make them for yourself? How is that person going to know what decisions you would make? An Advance Health Care Directive allows you to outline your wishes and appoint a representative to make medical decisions on your behalf.
Plan for Financial Management during Incapacity
Let’s say the coma continues and, now, your bills are coming due. Worse, yet, it’s mid-April and your taxes are due. Do you really want to come out of this coma and immediately have to deal with student loan representatives and the IRS? If the answer is no (which I assume the answer is no), you need a Durable Power of Attorney. This document lets you choose a person to deal with your finances while you are incapacitated.
Plan for Your Minor Children
This is super important: if you have minor children, you need an estate plan now. Immediately. Pronto. If you don’t have a plan in place and you die, the minor will receive his or her inheritance when he or she reaches 18 or 21 (depending on the state you live in). These funds will likely be given free and clear, no strings attached. At 21, I was living in a college town drinking Sangria from a Sparklett’s water cooler (and I was decently responsible as 21-year-olds go). Just saying. Additionally—and perhaps even more importantly—unless you have an estate plan, if you and the other parent of your children both die while the children are minors, a judge will decide who the children should live with until they become adults. If you can’t imagine your kids living with Aunt Gertrude, you need to put a plan in place.
Plan for Your Pets
Sure, you may not be able to leave $12 million dollars to your pet (like billionaire Leona Hemsley did in 2007), but you can still include your pets in your estate plan, making decisions about who will care for them and with what resources.
Hopefully, by now, you are thinking, “hmmmm, maybe I do need an estate plan. What now?” Laws vary from state to state, so you may want to consider talking with an attorney in your area. Some states may also have statutory forms that can help you reach some of these goals.
Janet Wallace is an attorney by day and blogger by night. She earned her J.D. from the University of California, Davis. You can find her at www.thisconfettilife.com.