The most significant advantage of a basic estate plan is knowing beforehand what will happen after you pass away and taking the opportunity to make that an orderly and efficient affair. A basic plan will also give you peace of mind that your family and loved ones will be taken care of in your absence and will ultimately allow your loved ones to grieve without worrying about legal matters. Allow our estate planning attorneys to walk you through the basic steps of estate planning.
- Take Inventory of your Physical and Intangible Estate
Assessing the value of your estate is the first step to basic estate planning. For instance, taking note of the value of your physical property such as a home, vehicle, or valuable art collection. Were you entrusted with a family heirloom that must be passed to a specific subsequent person? Also consider non-physical assets such as stocks, bonds, checking and savings accounts, retirement plans, life insurance policies, health savings accounts and ownership of businesses. In taking inventory as the first step, you’re ultimately getting a better idea of what you’re planning around and whether or not you’ll need advanced planning around the estate tax exemption limits.
- Family Needs and Responsibilities
Now is an excellent time to check that you have sufficient life insurance as part of your basic estate planning. While evaluating how much life insurance you may need, it’s wise to consider your marital status and if your current lifestyle requires multiple incomes. Other vital factors might include college tuition for children or facilities for a dependent with special needs.
While discussing dependents, establish who will be the children’s guardians and what, if any, special wishes you have for their future care. If your children go to private schools and you wish for them to remain in that school, you can express it in your plan.
- Establish Legal Directives as Part of Your Basic Estate Planning
Create a trust and/or a will
A revocable living trust or a will are going to be the core workhorses to your basic plan. Which one is right for you depends on a few things; namely, whether you own real property like a house or condo, whether you have minor children, and whether you want to have specific control over property after you pass. If you own a home, have minor children, or want to exert control, a revocable living trust will be the core pillar of your estate plan (though you still need a pour-over will as well). If you don’t own real property, don’t have minor children, and don’t want to exert any specific control over your assets beyond designating beneficiaries, a will as the plan foundation may work to take care of your wishes. A living trust is almost always the preferred route to ensure family can stay out of Probate court, so be sure your assets are exempt from the Probate process before utilizing a Will based plan alone.
Set up a medical care directive
A medical directive is the best way to establish what medical measures you are or are not comfortable with. This can be especially useful if you know what you don’t want for your end-of-life care. Perhaps you’ve experienced a loved one you feel was denied their peaceful end of life because they couldn’t make a choice themselves, and their family decided on life-saving measures they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves. Making your wishes known in an advance health care directive ahead of time helps to ensure your actual wishes are adhered to.
Identify a Power of Attorney
An essential part of basic estate planning is naming a power of attorney in case you become incapacitated. It’s vital to ensure that the person you designate knows you and your wishes. A financial power of attorney would have access to your finances and pay bills in your name, while medical agent would make medical decisions when you cannot.
- Review Beneficiaries
Now is the best time to ensure that the beneficiaries of your retirement and insurance policies are up to date. Remember that these designations trump what is laid out in your trust or will. Having conflicting designations on your policy and trust (or worse yet, no beneficiary designations) can lead to your estate ending up in probate court. Another helpful tip when naming beneficiaries is to name a contingent beneficiary. If you survive your primary beneficiary, a backup can be crucial.
- Plan for Estate Tax
Even basic estate planning involves preparing for taxes, and Federal taxes apply to large estates. In 2023, estates below the value of $12.92 million (per person for married couples) are exempt from federal estate tax. Many states have a separate estate tax and/or inheritance tax, but California is not one of them (don’t tell anyone!). If your estate is valued over the exemption amount, advanced planning is needed. While the vast majority of families will not have to plan around the estate tax under current exemption amounts, they still should optimize their plan from a capital gains and property tax perspective at a minimum. Utilizing a living trust to transfer property after death can be the easiest way to take advantage of these techniques. By planning for these taxes, you can maximize the amount your beneficiaries receive and minimize or altogether eliminate what is owed to the Government.
- Evaluate the Need for Professional Help
After reviewing everything you need to put together a basic estate plan, it’s an excellent time to reach out for professional help. This process can be overwhelming and confusing. Professional help is recommended if you have an extensive estate or extenuating circumstances, such as special care instructions for dependents or non-familial beneficiaries. If you have any questions or doubts, an estate attorney may be your best choice. If you have a fairly simple estate, simple wishes for what happens to your estate, and are comfortable with a DIY based plan, you could also utilize a high-quality estate planning software like Estate Lock to complete your basic plan.
- Plan to Reassess
Basic estate planning includes keeping documents up to date. Birth, death, marriage, divorce, a falling out with someone named in your plan, or a large change in assets are all reasons to review your estate plan and update it accordingly. It’s a good rule of thumb to review your plan every few years, even if there haven’t been any significant life changes.
Call Jenkins & Jenkins, Estate Planning Attorneys Today
We are experts in basic estate planning law as well as more complex estate planning at Jenkins & Jenkins, Estate Planning Attorneys in San Diego. We strive to make this process simple and ensure that you are prepared for your and your loved ones’ futures.