What is Estate Planning?
You have an estate. Your estate is everything you own—car, home, checking and savings accounts, investments, life insurance, personal possessions. However large or small, you can’t take it with you when you die.
When that happens—and it is a “when” and not an “if” — you probably care about what will be done with your estate. So you need to provide instructions stating whom you want to receive something of yours, what you want them to receive, and when they are to receive it. And this should happen with the least amount paid in taxes, legal fees, and court costs.
That is estate planning. But good estate planning is much more than that. It can also:
Include instructions for someone to manage your finances if you become disabled.
Name a guardian and an inheritance manager for minor children.
Provide for loved ones who might be irresponsible with money or need protection from creditors or divorce.
Name someone who can help with your medical care, and make possibly life-ending decisions based on your own wishes.
Be an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Your plan should be reviewed and updated as your family and financial situations (and laws) change over your lifetime.
Estate planning is for everyone.
Not just for “retired” people, although people do tend to think about it more as they get older. We can’t predict how long we will live, and illness and accidents happen to people of all ages. On the other hand, you’ll never see ‘estate planning’ listed as cause of death on a death certificate. So don’t worry.
Too many people don't plan.
You might put this off because you think you don’t own enough, you’re not old enough, you’re busy, you think you have plenty of time, or you just don’t want to think about it. Then, when something happens to you, your family has to pick up the pieces.
If you don’t have a plan, California has one for you.
But you probably won’t like it.
If you are disabled: If your assets are in your name then a court appointee will sign for you. It’s called a conservatorship, sometimes known as a ‘living probate.’ It’s expensive and time consuming, and open to the public.
At your death: If you die without an intentional estate plan, it’s likely that your assets will be distributed according to the probate laws, and that expensive, lengthy, and public probate process will again be triggered.
Know the difference between a will and a trust.
A will gives instructions, but it does not avoid probate. Not everything you own will go through probate, but you need to understand what will and what will not, and what will happen to those assets that might not go through probate.
For these reasons a revocable living trust is often preferred. It can avoid probate at death, prevent court control of assets at incapacity, bring all of your assets together into one plan, provide maximum privacy, and can be changed at any time. It can also reflect your love and values to your family and future generations, and even protect the property for your family for generations.
Planning your estate will help you get organized.
If someone had to take over your life tomorrow, how would that go? Planning your estate now will help you organize your records, locate titles and beneficiary designations, and find and fix errors. Despite your good intentions, an innocent error can create all kinds of problems for your family at your disability or death.
The best time to plan your estate is now.
None of us likes to think about our own mortality. And so, many families are caught off-guard and unprepared when incapacity or death does strike. Estate planning is one of the most thoughtful and considerate things you can do for yourself and for those you love.