Don't have an estate? It still pays to plan as if you do
Unless you're rich, you may think the term "estate planning" doesn't apply to you. Well, think again.
The need for an estate plan has nothing to do with whether you're worth millions or just a few hundred dollars. Everyone has something to pass on.
"People make a big mistake when they think, 'I don't need to do planning because I don't have that much,'"‰" said Marvin Blum, a Dallas-Fort Worth estate planning attorney. "Everybody has something, and without exception, everybody needs a will."
Your estate includes your home and other real estate; tangible personal property, such as cars and furniture; and intangible property, such as bank accounts, investments, and pension and Social Security benefits.
At the very least, you need to decide what you'd like to happen with your estate when you die. But estate planning involves more than just having a will. Consider these questions:
If you and your spouse died suddenly in an auto accident, who would take care of your children?
If you could no longer manage your money because of illness, who would make financial decisions for you?
"A properly thought-out estate plan answers these and many other questions," said Thomas Murphy, a certified financial planner in Dallas. "Many estate-planning issues have little to do with money and a great deal to do with control."
For Tommy and Johnnie Wells of Dallas, it's a matter of ensuring that their estate passes to their heirs without complications.
"For us, it's been to make sure that we can direct this to our children in the right way that will not burden them in any way," said Johnnie, 69.
For example, the Wellses want to ensure that Tommy's disabled daughter from a previous marriage doesn't lose her disability benefits because of what she inherits.
"What we have to be careful of is that we don't give her a lump sum that is going to disqualify her from her disability income," said Tommy, 75.
Tommy also inherited mineral rights in a natural gas well, and the couple is trying to delicately navigate how it will pass those on to his grandchildren.
"We want to be fair to all of them, and at the same time, (deal with) the dynamics between the kids and the grandchildren," Johnnie said. "One son doesn't have any children at all, so that would be bypassing them entirely. We don't want to leave him out."
Blum said there are three aspects of good estate planning: preserving, managing and distributing assets. Here's what you need to know:
Preserving assets: "You want to do things that will help to protect against loss of assets to creditor claims," Blum said.
One tool for protecting assets is a family limited partnership, which pools a family's assets. Such a partnership is frequently used to minimize estate tax and to protect against creditor claims.
The bottom line is that "you're trying to preserve the biggest possible base of assets to pass along to your family," Blum said. "So you want to think about things you can to do to protect against creditor claims and things you can do to save on taxes."
MANAGING ASSETS: Ask yourself who will step in and manage your affairs if you're disabled or deceased.
It's critical that you choose the right person, because if you don't, you could end up having your assets mishandled.
Among other things, you will need a durable power of attorney that authorizes someone to manage your financial affairs if you're unable to do so.
"With this document, your spouse or other named person can access your checking account, buy or sell stocks in your brokerage account, buy or sell your house, your car, your business or other assets," said Murphy, of Murphy & Sylvest. "It is a very powerful document, and you should be very careful whom you name."
The other documents you need have to do with health issues. These are:
—Health care power of attorney: This designates someone who can make medical decisions on your behalf if you're unable to communicate your wishes.
—HIPAA waiver: HIPAA stands for the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which makes it easier for people to protect the confidentiality and security of their health care information.
The waiver enables you to designate who is authorized to speak to your doctors and other medical providers if you're unable to do so.
—Directive to physicians: This document is also known as a living will or an advance directive. It clearly states your wishes about life-sustaining treatments when you reach the point that you can no longer decide for yourself.
"Some people want this and some don't, but it can relieve your loved ones of guilt should they be in a position to make this decision," Murphy said
—Declaration of guardian: This document enables you, instead of a court, to select who will be your guardian if you become incapacitated.
DISTRIBUTING ASSETS: This isn't always as simple as just leaving everything to one person, Blum said.
"You want to think about causes, charitable bequests, that may be meaningful to you," he said. "You want to think about specific bequests of jewelry or personal effects."
Blum advises people to keep their will simple and put details in a separate document, such as a codicil
"You could have a will that says, 'I leave everything to my wife and if she's deceased, then I leave it to my two children 50-50,'"‰" and not go into detail about your gun collection or your wedding ring, Blum said.
Spelling that out in a separate document makes things easier, he said.
"People change their mind on those and it's just easier if they want to continue to update that list not to have to redo the whole will," Blum said.
Also think about the nonfinancial assets you want to pass on.
"How do you want to be represented in the world after you're gone?" said Michelle Brennan Hall, president of Brennan Wealth Advisors LLC in Addison, Texas. "Who's likely to carry on the family name and the essence of your heritage and who you are?"
Pamela Yip is a personal finance columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.