No one wants to think about death, much less plan for the aftermath. But seeing as it is the most inevitable event in our lives, don't we owe it to those who love us to make the burden easier for them to bear? That's what estate planning is all about. And it isn't just for the wealthy.
Before you start your plan with an attorney, you need to consider two important issues about which you must make some decisions: people and process.
—The people issue. Before deciding on the "form" of your estate plan (will versus revocable living trust), you need to think about some people issues. You may start by thinking of the list of "who should get what." They will be your beneficiaries — the people or charities who get the stuff or money you leave behind.
If you have a life insurance policy, your named beneficiaries will get the proceeds. Similarly, if you have an individual retirement account or 401(k) plan, the beneficiary you named with the plan custodian will get all the assets. But for the rest of your assets, the probate court in your state will decide how they will be distributed and to whom — unless you give specific instructions in the form of a legal document, not just a handwritten note.
If you hold title to your house in joint name with rights of survivorship, then your co-owner will automatically get the property. Otherwise, you need to name someone to receive the asset.
If you have minor children, you must name a trustee for those assets you want them to receive. Otherwise, a judge will do it for you.
Thinking about who gets what is the first step — but not the only "people" issue. Equally — or more — important is the issue of whom you trust to carry out your wishes for your distributions. That person will be the executor of your will — or the successor trustee of your living trust.
And because you will also be creating two more important documents — a health care power of attorney and a living will, which gives your wishes about prolonging treatment at the end of your life — you'll need trusted people to carry out those wishes when you cannot act on your own. They will not necessarily be the same people as the one you name to carry out the financial and legal issues of your estate.
Suddenly, you understand the importance of trusted adult children, true and competent friends who will likely outlive you, or an attorney who will do more than draw up the necessary documents. Peace of mind demands that you have at least one person you can trust to have your best interests at heart when you cannot act for yourself.
—The process of your estate plan. You don't have to be an estate planning expert to understand the two basic forms of estate planning. These two forms have nothing to do with estate taxes, which will apply only to estates well over $5 million. This is all about how your assets are distributed.
If you make a simple will, it will have instructions for the distribution of your property. Your named executor will take your will to the probate court, for which the "estate" will pay a fee. And it could take months or longer for the court to order a distribution of the assets to your named beneficiaries.
However, if you create a revocable living trust, you can avoid the time, expense and very public probate process of distributing your assets — while getting exactly the same results in terms of distributions. When you create this trust, you will be the original trustee (or you and your spouse), with complete power to make changes at any time. You name a successor trustee to act on your behalf if you cannot act for yourself. (One big advantage: If you have a stroke or dementia, your successor trustee does not have to go to court for permission to act on your behalf.)
Creating a revocable living trust does no good unless you retitle your major assets — your house, your investment accounts, your certificates of deposit and other valuable assets — in the name of your trust. This is a simple process, and it does not create a taxable event to change the name on the title, because you are still the controlling trustee. You can buy and sell these assets without any extra hassle, reporting applicable gains or losses on your personal tax return.
As part of your revocable living trust, you leave the same instructions as would be in your will for distribution of your assets after your death. But your successor trustee distributes them directly to the causes and people you designate — without going through the court process of probate.
This is an overview, but you should definitely get professional help from an estate planning attorney in your state. Estate planning is not a do-it-yourself project, because by the time your mistakes are discovered, you won't be around to fix them! And that's The Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and is on the board of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. She appears weekly on WMAQ-Channel 5's 4:30 p.m. newscast and can be reached at www.terrysavage.com. She is the author of the new book "The New Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Really Need to Retire?" Terry answers readers' personal finance questions on her blog at www.TerrySavage.com. To find out more about Terry Savage and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.