GETTING STARTED IS EASIER THAN YOU THINK
If you've been procrastinating, or you're just not sure how to get started, you've come to the right place.
For many people, making the decision to create their estate plan can be quite difficult because it forces us to consider our own mortality. Yet at the same time, the consequences for not creating an estate plan can be quite serious. Visiting our website and reading the information here is a great first step toward accomplishing that task, and here are some simple steps for you to get started.
ORGANIZE YOUR FINANCIAL INFORMATION
Create a personal balance sheet. This can be as simple as a page of notebook paper, or a thorough spreadsheets of your assets. Include, as best you can, the current market values, any debts owed against them, the resulting net values, and how the assets are titled. Gather copies of the actual deeds and current statements so your attorney can see them.
Include your home and any other real estate; other titled property such as a car or boat; bank accounts; interest bearing accounts (savings, money market, CDs); stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other investment accounts; retirement savings including profit sharing, IRAs, 401(K)s and pension plans; business and partnership interests; life insurance policies and annuities; receivables (people who owe you money); items of special value such as coin collections, antiques, artwork, jewelry; an estimate of your personal property; and a listing of all debts other than those connected to the assets listed above (credit cards, personal loans, unsecured lines of credit).
Be honest about this with yourself. Your estate plan will only be as good and thorough as the information you provide. If you provide incomplete information, you will have an incomplete plan. But, you can leave placeholders for any information and documents you are missing at the moment provided remember to account for them in your plan.
In the absence of an estate plan, or with an incomplete/invalid estate plan, the Probate Court will likely appoint guardians for your minor children, and the Court may appoint a conservator to make decisions about your medical care if you are unable to do so yourself. Without a valid plan, all decisions about your estate, your children, and your health care will have to be approved through the Probate Court system.
MAKE A LIST OF ALL THE PEOPLE YOU WANT TO INHERIT FROM YOU
This may include your spouse, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, siblings, a life partner to whom you are not married, special friends, etc. Include their full legal names, dates of birth (if known), current addresses, and how they are related to you. Be sure to note if there are any special needs involved (children, parents, or even a pet). You may wish to include a charitable, educational or religious organization if so inclined.
THINK ABOUT HOW (AND WHEN) YOU WANT THOSE PEOPLE TO INHERIT FROM YOU
Treating all of your children is not always the fair thing to do. For example, one child may have done very well in business, while another may be living paycheck to paycheck just getting by on a teacher's salary. If you are married, you will want to make sure your spouse has enough money to live out the rest of his/her years securely. If this is your second marriage, you may want to make sure that your children from a prior relationship inherit from you.
Some people like to distribute the full inheritance right away, while others prefer it to be paid in installments. Sometimes the inheritance needs to remain in a trust because a beneficiary is still a minor child. And some people prefer to keep the inheritance in a trust where it will be protected from divorce, creditors, or irresponsible spending.
THINK ABOUT WHOM YOU WANT AND TRUST TO BE YOUR
EXECUTOR (WILL) OR TRUSTEE (LIVING TRUST)
Automatically naming your oldest child or naming all of your children to act together is not always the best idea. The person you select for this important responsibility should be someone you trust, whose judgment you respect, and who will also honor your wishes. If you don't feel you have good candidates (maybe they live to far away, are too busy, or aren't responsible enough), consider a professional to be your executor or trustee.
If you have minor children, you will need to decide whom you prefer to raise them if you should die before they reach legal age and whom should manage their inheritance until they reach the age(s) you want them to inherit.
THINK ABOUT WHOM YOU WANT AND TRUST TO MAKE HEALTH CARE DECISIONS FOR YOU
If you become unable to make health care decisions for yourself, you can appoint a health care proxy for yourself and provide specific instructions about the kind of medical treatment you want, or don't want, as well as directions regarding your care at a certain facility (hospital, assisted living facility, home care, or nursing home).
THINK ABOUT WHOM YOU WANT AND TRUST TO MAKE FINANCIAL & BUSINESS DECISIONS FOR YOU
If you become unable to manage you own affairs, pay your own bills, or otherwise handle your ongoing, day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month personal or professional financial matters, you can appoint an agent to stand in your shoes for many of these tasks and keep the ship afloat, so to speak, until you are able to do so on your own again.
WRITE DOWN YOUR THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS AS YOU GO ALONG
So you don't forget them and so that you will remember to discuss them with your attorney. You don't have to make all these decisions on your own; estate planning attorneys have counseled many families and they have seen the results of proper and improper planning. An experienced attorney will be able to guide you with these decisions, but he/she does not know your family like you do. Giving some advance thought to these matters will help your attorney help you.
Keep in mind that estate planning is a process. It may take several meetings with your attorney to get things just the way you want them. You will also need to update your plan from time to time as your situation changes over your lifetime.