Many people believe that if they have a Will, their estate planning is complete, but there is much more to a solid estate plan. A good plan should be designed to avoid probate, save on estate taxes, protect assets if you move into a nursing home and appoint someone to act if you become disabled.
All estate plans should include a durable power of attorney for property and a Will. A trust can also be useful to avoid probate and to manage your estate both during your life and after you are gone. In addition, medical directives allow you to appoint someone to make medical decisions on your behalf.
A Will is a legally binding statement directing who will receive your property at your death. If you do not have a Will, state law determines how your property is distributed. A Will also appoints a legal representative (called an executor) to carry out your wishes. A Will is important if you have minor children because it allows you to name a guardian for the children. However, a Will covers only probate property. Many types of property or forms of ownership pass outside of probate. Jointly owned property, property in trust, life insurance proceeds and property with a named beneficiary, such as IRAs or 401(k) plans, all pass outside of probate and are not covered under a Will.
A trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or a law firm), called a “trustee”, holds legal title to property for another person, called a “beneficiary”. There are several reasons for setting up a trust. The most common reason is to avoid probate.
Certain trusts can result in tax advantages for the beneficiary. These are referred to as credit shelter trusts. Other trusts can be used to protect property from creditors or to help the donor qualify for Medicaid.
A durable power of attorney for property allows the person you appoint to act in your place for financial purposes if you become incapacitated. In that case, the person you choose will be able to step in and take care of your financial affairs. Without a durable power of attorney for property, no one can represent you unless a court appoints a guardian. That court process takes time and money, and the judge may not choose the person you would prefer. In addition, under a guardianship, your representative may have to seek court permission to take planning steps that he could implement immediately under a durable power of attorney.
A power of attorney for health care allows you to designate someone to make health care decisions if you are unable to do so yourself. A living will instructs your health care provider to withdraw artificial life support if you are terminally ill or in a vegetative state.