After graduating from college, and even law school, the thought of drafting your estate plan probably did not make the top twenty on your "to-do" list, and why should it? The only thing most young professionals have when they first start out is debt. However, after you land your first job, preparing your estate plan needs to move quickly to the top of that elusive "to do" list. It's especially important if you are starting a family. Below are five documents that should be part of your estate plan.
1. Durable Financial Power of Attorney. A Durable Financial Power of Attorney is a document whereby you name an agent to act on your behalf concerning your personal financial affairs. Typically, your agent would step into this role only if you were unable to handle your own affairs; e.g., if you were in a serious accident or were extremely ill. Your agent can be a family member, a close friend whom you trust, or even a private fiduciary. The Power of Attorney gives your agent a wide range of duties and responsibilities that should be tailored to your own situation. Some of the responsibilities of your agent might include paying your bills, caring for your home, and even handling disputes on your behalf with the Motor Vehicle Division or the Social Security office. This is one of those documents that you do not need . . . until you do. If you do not have a Durable Financial Power of Attorney in place, and you are unable to make your own decisions, your family members may have to petition the Court to appoint a Conservator on your behalf, which can often be time-consuming, involve delays, and is expensive.
2. Health Care Power of Attorney. A Health Care Power of Attorney is similar to the Durable Financial Power of Attorney, except it is used for decisions concerning your health care. Again, you will name an agent who will have the authority to make health care decisions for you, if you are unable to make them for yourself. Your named agent can assist with placement, if you must be moved to a rehabilitation facility, and is often given the ultimate authority to follow your wishes regarding life-sustaining treatment, if you were in a terminal situation.
It is important to contact an estate planning attorney to draft this document, due to changes in the laws over the past several years such as decisions on the disposition of your body (i.e. burial vs. cremation). Also, a properly drafted Health Care Power of Attorney is necessary if your physician has determined that, due to your deteriorating mental condition, you must be placed in a Level One Behavioral Health Facility. Without a Health Care Power of Attorney containing certain language, such Facilities will require that a Guardian be appointed to act on your behalf.
3. Last Will and Testament. A Will allows you to provide, with a great deal of specificity, to whom and in what manner your assets will be distributed upon your death. A Will is much more simple than a trust. There are many options to consider when preparing the provisions in your Will, for example: Who will receive your personal property, what will happen to your house, who will serve as guardian for your minor children, and who will be responsible for paying your final expenses? While it may seem overwhelming at first, once you have addressed these questions, and have properly executed your documents, you will be relieved that you have made the task of distributing your property significantly simpler.
Depending on your estate and goals, a Revocable Living Trust may also be an option to consider. Even if you decide to create a Trust, it is still important to execute a Will. If you have a Trust, the sole beneficiary of your Will is likely to be the Trustee of this Trust.
4. Beneficiary Designation. If that first new job that you landed came with a 401(K) or an IRA program, make sure that you contact your Financial Advisor to ensure there is a current beneficiary designation for you on the account. A Beneficiary Designation states that upon your death, the assets held in that account pass immediately to the named individual(s). Typically the individual(s) will have to provide the custodian of the account with a death certificate and complete forms required of a beneficiary. If you do not have a beneficiary designation on the account at the time of your death, the funds will be distributed as part of your estate. Under IRS regulations an estate cannot be a beneficiary, therefore, if this occurs, the funds in the account must be distributed over five years, which is disadvantageous from an income tax standpoint. Speak with your estate planning attorney to determine if having a Beneficiary Designation fits with your overall estate plan.
5. Beneficiary Deed. A Beneficiary Deed allows you to name an individual who will receive your interest in real property at your death. Chances are, if you are married, you hold title to your home as community property with right of survivorship or joint tenants with right of survivorship. If that is the case, a Beneficiary Deed would only be used at the death of the second spouse. However, if you are the sole owner of a home, and again, all of your assets will be distributable to one or two individuals, such as your significant other or your parents, a Beneficiary Deed will allow for a smooth transfer without subjecting your property to a probate proceeding. There are times when use of a Beneficiary Deed might not be in your best interest, e.g., if you wish the property to be distributed to minor children.
After the necessary documents are executed, be certain that one set of originals is placed in a safe or safe deposit box in your bank and let your family know that the documents are there. It is wise to re visit these documents when a major life event occurs, such as a wedding, a birth or even a death, to ensure no changes to your documents should be made. If no major life events occur, it is always a good idea to contact your estate planning attorney every five years to ensure there have been no substantive changes in the laws that may affect your documents. The above information is based on the laws of the State of Arizona.
"Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now."
- Alan Lakein, author of How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life