Simply stated, estate planning is a method for determining how to distribute your property during your life and at your death. It is the process of developing and implementing a master plan that facilitates the distribution of your property after your death and according to your goals and objectives.
At your death, you leave behind the people that you love and all your worldly goods. Without advance planning, you have no say about who gets what, and more of your property may go to others, like the federal government, instead of your loved ones. If you care about (1) how and to whom your property is distributed, and (2) ensuring that your property is preserved for your loved ones, you need to know more about estate planning.
As a process, estate planning requires a little effort on your part. First, you’ll want to come to terms with dying, at least to a degree that you can deal with the necessary planning. Understandably, your death can be a very uncomfortable subject, but unfortunately, the discussions in this area are full of references to your death, so it really can’t be avoided. Some statements may seem too businesslike and unfeeling, but tiptoeing around the subject of dying will only make the planning process more difficult. You will understand the process more easily and implement a more successful master plan if you approach it in a straightforward manner.
Who Needs Estate Planning?
Estate planning may be important to individuals with a wide range of financial situations. In fact, it may be more important if you have a smaller estate because the final expenses will have a much greater impact on your estate. Wasting even a single asset may cause your loved ones to suffer from a lack of financial resources.
Since incapacity can strike anyone at anytime, all adults over 18 should consider having: A durable power of attorney: This document lets you name someone to manage your property for you in case you become incapacitated and cannot do so. An advance medical directive: The three main types of advance medical directives are (1) a living will, (2) a durable power of attorney for health care (also known as a health-care proxy), and (3) a Do Not Resuscitate order. Be aware that not all states allow each kind of medical directive, so make sure you execute one that will be effective for you.
If you're young and single, you may not need much estate planning. But if you have some material possessions, you should at least write a will. If you don't, the wealth you leave behind if you die will likely go to your parents, and that might not be what you would want. A will lets you leave your possessions to anyone you choose (e.g., your significant other, siblings, other relatives, or favorite charity).
You've committed to a life partner but aren't legally married. For you, a will is essential if you want your property to pass to your partner at your death. Without a will, state law directs that only your closest relatives will inherit your property, and your partner may get nothing. If you share certain property, such as a house or car, you may consider owning the property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. That way, when one of you dies, the jointly held property will pass to the surviving partner automatically.
For many years, married couples had to do careful estate planning, such as the creation of a credit shelter trust, in order to take advantage of their combined federal estate tax exclusions. For decedents dying in 2011 and later years, the executor of a deceased spouse's estate can transfer any unused estate tax exclusion amount to the surviving spouse without such planning. You may be inclined to rely on these portability rules for estate tax avoidance, using outright bequests to your spouse instead of traditional trust planning. However, portability should not be relied upon solely for utilization of the first to die's estate tax exclusion, and a credit shelter trust created at the first spouse's death may still be advantageous for several reasons: Portability may be lost if the surviving spouse remarries and is later widowed again The trust can protect any appreciation of assets from estate tax at the second spouse's death The trust can provide protection of assets from the reach of the surviving spouse's creditors Portability does not apply to the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax, so the trust may be needed to fully leverage the GST exemptions of both spouses Married couples where one spouse is not a U.S. citizen have special planning concerns. The marital deduction is not allowed if the recipient spouse is a non-citizen spouse (but a $152,000 annual exclusion, for 2018, is allowed). If certain requirements are met, however, a transfer to a qualified domestic trust (QDOT) will qualify for the marital deduction.
If you're married and have children, you and your spouse should each have your own will. For you, wills are vital because you can name a guardian for your minor children in case both of you die simultaneously. If you fail to name a guardian in your will, a court may appoint someone you might not have chosen. Furthermore, without a will, some states dictate that at your death some of your property goes to your children and not to your spouse. If minor children inherit directly, the surviving parent will need court permission to manage the money for them. You may also want to consult an attorney about establishing a trust to manage your children's assets in the event that both you and your spouse die at the same time. You may also need life insurance. Your surviving spouse may not be able to support the family on his or her own and may need to replace your earnings to maintain the family.
If you're in your 30s, you may be feeling comfortable. You've accumulated some wealth and you're thinking about retirement. Here's where estate planning overlaps with retirement planning. It's just as important to plan to care for yourself during your retirement as it is to plan to provide for your beneficiaries after your death. You should keep in mind that even though Social Security may be around when you retire, those benefits alone may not provide enough income for your retirement years. Consider saving some of your accumulated wealth using other retirement and deferred vehicles, such as an individual retirement account (IRA).
Depending on the size of your estate, you may need to be concerned about estate taxes. For 2018, $11,180,000 is effectively excluded from the federal gift and estate tax. Estates over that amount may be subject to the tax at a top rate of 40 percent. Similarly, there is another tax, called the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax, that is imposed on transfers of wealth made to grandchildren (and lower generations). For 2018, the GST tax exemption is also $11,180,000, and the top tax rate is 40 percent. Note: The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law in December 2017, doubled the gift and estate tax basic exclusion amount and the GST tax exemption to $11,180,000 in 2018. After 2025, they are scheduled to revert to their pre-2018 levels and cut by about one-half. Whether your estate will be subject to state death taxes depends on the size of your estate and the tax laws in effect in the state in which you are domiciled.
If you're elderly or ill, you'll want to write a will or update your existing one, consider a revocable living trust, and make sure you have a durable power of attorney and a health-care directive. Talk with your family about your wishes, and make sure they have copies of your important papers or know where to locate them.
Designing a plan is a process that is unique to each estate owner. Don’t be intimidated or overwhelmed at the prospect. Even the most complex plan can be achieved if you proceed step by step. Remember, the peace of mind that comes with developing a successful estate plan is worth the time, trouble, and expense.
Understand your particular circumstances
Begin the estate planning process by understanding your particular circumstances, such as your age: health, wealth, etc.
Understand the factors that will affect your estate
You will also need to have some understanding of the factors that may affect the distribution of your estate, such as: taxes, probate, liquidity, and incapacity.
Clarify your goals and objectives
When your particular circumstances and the factors that may affect your estate are clear, your goals and objectives should come into focus.
Understand the strategies that are available
With these goals and objectives now clear, you can begin to consider the different estate planning strategies that are available to you.
Seek professional help
Seeking professional help (an attorney or financial advisor) will help you understand the strategies that are available and formulate and implement your master plan.
Formulate and implement a plan
Finally, after following these steps, you can formulate and implement a plan that works for you. Here are a few basic tips: (1) make sure you understand your plan, (2) rely on people you trust, and (3) keep your documents and information organized and within easy reach.
Perform periodic reviews
When you have implemented your master plan, be sure to perform a periodic review and, if necessary, make revisions that reflect any changing circumstances and tax laws.
Find the right Fiduciary
Finding the right fiduciary to help you can make all the difference in your estate plan, and quality of life.
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Generally two ways of obtaining financial advice: one is given by stockbrokers, and the other is given by Investment Advisors. While many investors aren’t even aware differences exist, one of the main differences is that investment advisors have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of their clients at all times.