Estate Planning Basics You Need to Know
By Richard Eisenberg for Next Avenue
I like the way my "Friends Talk Money" podcast co-host Pam Krueger put it when describing estate planning in our new episode about it: "I hate the words estate planning. It's just planning."
Some people get scared off by the term "estate planning" because they think it sounds like something only the wealthy need to do. Truth is, one of the greatest gifts you can make for your loved ones is leaving instructions for both your wishes after you die and for if you can't make health or financial decisions while you're alive.
As Krueger said: "It's not always all about money. It's about planning to make things easier for the transfer of your assets and to reflect what's important to you should anything happen."
Below are a few tips from "Friends Talk Money" co-hosts Krueger (co-host of "MoneyTrack" on public television and founder of Wealthramp.com, Terry Savage (nationally syndicated personal finance columnist and the author of "The Savage Truth on Money") and me (editor of Next Avenue's Money & Policy channel). You can hear the entire "Friends Talk Money" podcast episode below or wherever you get your podcasts.
Wills and Trusts
First things first: the importance of having a will.
This document will let your loved ones know where you'd like many of your assets to go upon your death. It's essential to have a will whether you're married or single or whether you're a parent, grandparent or childless.
Your life insurance policies, Individual Retirement Accounts and 401(k) accounts will automatically go to whomever you name as beneficiaries. (Side note: be sure you've named your beneficiaries and that your choices are up to date.)
Savage strongly urges hiring an estate lawyer to prepare a will and possibly a revocable living trust — more on the latter shortly. "Estate planning is a not a DIY project," she said.
While I agree that having an estate lawyer can be hugely helpful (I use such a pro), I also know that not everyone can afford to hire one, especially these days. Lawyers often charge $1,000 or more to draft a will.
That's why I said on the podcast that I think it's better to have a good, inexpensive online will — figure on paying $20 to $200 — that meets your state's rules, rather than not to have a will at all because a lawyer costs too much.
I also reminded "Friends Talk Money" listeners that a will is not a set-it-and-forget-it document. If, for example, the person designated as your executor dies while you're alive, you'll need to update the will and appoint a replacement.
Savage noted that she's also a fan of a revocable living trust. It's an estate planning document. Like a will, it says who'll get your assets when you die. But unlike a will, it also lets you provide instructions for what you'd like a designated person to do for you while you're alive, if you can't.
Be sure to hire a lawyer if you want a revocable living trust drawn up. Getting one done correctly is complicated and requires naming the trust the beneficiary for each of your assets in it. A revocable living trust might run you $2,000 to $5,000, Krueger said.
Advance Directives and Living Wills
The flipside of a will, for estate planning, is ensuring that your wishes are carried out while you're alive if you can't due to, say, a serious accident, dementia or a stroke.
These documents include a durable health care power of attorney (to appoint someone to make health decisions for you) a financial power of attorney (to make money decisions for you) and a living will (to provide instructions on whether you'd want heroic medical measures to be taken for you).
Many people haven't gotten around to arranging for these. "Some of the smartest people in my life have told me, 'I should do that. I haven't done that," said Krueger.
These types of documents, Savage noted, can be found online. And they're fairly simple, as long as you spell out your instructions. Just be sure they're ones that apply in your state, Savage said.
"Bring the health care power of attorney and your living will to your physician," Savage advised. That way, your doctor will know who'll handle your medical matters and what your end-of-life wishes are.
Krueger offered a personal reflection regarding her late mother. "I thank God my mom had a living will. It made it easy for me to make a really difficult decision," she said.
One last tip, from the "Friends Talk Money" co-hosts: keep an eye on Washington, D.C. in 2021. President-elect Joe Biden has proposed drastically lowering the federal estate tax exemption from $11.5 million to $3.5 million and raising the top gift and estate tax rate from 40% to 45%.
Benjamin Franklin famously said, "Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." But what's uncertain is what might happen to death taxes in the coming year.
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch.