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You don’t have to be older and rich to do some estate planning.
In fact, regardless of age and wealth, experts say virtually everyone should consider how they want their assets distributed upon their death and what decisions will be made by whom if they are unable to make those decisions later in life.
For the sake of yourself — and, more importantly, your loved ones — getting your estate and health-care directives in order can prevent a lot of emotional pain and suffering down the road.
“A lot of people think they can do their estate planning later, but that’s not always the case,” said Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner and founder of the Garrett Planning Network in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. “It involves relatively simple documents, but I’ve seen some horror stories when people don’t address the situation adequately.”
Garrett detailed some of the key estate-planning issues to consider — sooner rather than later.
A will details how you wish your assets to be distributed after you die. Templates for this document and many others can be downloaded for free from websites such as LawDepot.com.
“A will is a simple slam dunk for most people,” Garrett said.
The form requires you to appoint an executor of your estate and an alternative executor if your first choice is unable to fulfill the role. It requires details of who is to receive which assets and whether there are any conditions that need to be met before beneficiaries receive their inheritance, such as minors reaching a certain age first.
“The most important thing is to name a guardian if you have dependent children,” Garrett explained. “It is easiest if one person is executor of the will and the guardian of dependents, but it doesn’t always make sense.
“It may be better to have one person take care of dependents while another manages the resources to take care of them.”
A common misconception many married people have is that, absent a will, all assets and investments go to their spouse. That is often not the case, Garrett said.
“State law often dictates that if there is no will, the state will provide one and, in many cases, assets are evenly split among all heirs,” she explained. “If you wanted all your assets to go to your spouse or children, other heirs may contest that wish if you don’t have a will.”
One cheap and simple alternative to the execution of a will in court is to set up beneficiary designations for your specific assets. You can do that with everything from bank accounts to investment accounts, personal property and real estate.
It removes those assets from the estate and reduces the cost of settling the estate in court. “Most middle-class Americans can cover almost everything of value with beneficiary designations,” Garrett said. “It’s cheaper and makes things go easier.”
Choosing a person to make health-care decisions for you is critical if you become unable to do so. A health-care power of attorney allows someone to empower another person as agent to make those decisions. You can choose anyone, but make sure you trust them deeply.
The health-care power of attorney also enables you to detail health-care and medical treatments you may not want under different circumstances. Your health-care agent will be required to follow those wishes.
“Most people want to be in control instead of leaving these decisions to loved ones,” Garrett said. “Do them a favor and do it yourself with relatively simple documents to fill out.
“You can update them if you change your mind later about anything.”
It is crucial that your health-care agent, as well as your doctor, has a signed copy of the power of attorney document.
Similar to the health-care power of attorney, a living will provides directions for life-saving treatments you may or may not want under different circumstances. Your health-care agent will be tasked with ensuring that your wishes are followed.
A “do not resuscitate,” or DNR, order is a separate document that is part of a living will that describes under what conditions you would not want life-saving treatments.
It is important to be aware that health-care institutions often require that people fill out their own in-house forms regarding health-care directives. Also try to ensure that your health-care agent can in theory be present if you are admitted to a hospital emergency room so their authority is immediately recognized.
“In my opinion, health-care [powers of attorney] and living wills are the most important things to address because they kick in while you’re alive,” said Garrett, who lost her spouse six months ago. “The rest of the stuff applies when you’re dead.”
Estate planning does not have to be expensive. In fact, you can download a basic will and other documents like a healthcare power of attorney for free at website lawdepot.com. The forms do not need to be notarized, only signed by the creator of the will and one or more witnesses depending on state law.
There are also online sites like Quicken and LegalZoom that offer templates for estate planning documents and guidance in filling them out, generally for less than $100.
Garrett says there’s nothing wrong with going the “doing it yourself” route, but suggests you have a lawyer eventually check things out particularly if you have a significant amount of assets and more than a few beneficiaries.
Lawyers will cost you anywhere from $100 to $400 per hour. Simple wills should not require more than a couple of hours to draft with complicated estates requiring a couple of hours more.