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Estate planning 101

There’s a certain sadness sometimes associated with estate planning. It can be painful to consider our own mortality, which is why so many people delay this vital process. After all, it’s easy enough to say, “I’ll get to it tomorrow.” That is until something goes catastrophically wrong like a sudden illness or injury that leads to incapacity, or the passing of a loved one.

It behooves us all, regardless of our overall wealth and age, to have a comprehensive estate plan.

Get started with a will

If you only have a single estate planning document, a will is probably the best place to start. A will allows you to take a number of important actions, including:

  • Directing how property and assets shall be disbursed after your passing
  • Naming a guardian for your minor children
  • Setting out your preferences for funeral arrangements (burial versus cremation, a solemn memorial service versus a celebration of life, etc.)

There is a downside to only having a will, however. In particular, it will go through the probate process. This is a court proceeding, and anything discussed in the will can be discovered as part of the public record. If you value your privacy and want to ensure that your family’s proverbial “dirty laundry” isn’t aired publicly, consider a trust instead. Your estate planning attorney will help you decide what type of plan is best for your unique situation.

Other key documents

A will or trust that handles the disposition of property once you pass isn’t the only thing that you need in your estate plan. It’s also necessary to have documents that plan for your illness or incapacity. These include:

  • A living will that directs the direction of palliative or life-saving care if you have a terminal condition or are in a vegetative state
  • Health care proxy that appoints someone to make medical decisions on your behalf (also known as a “health care directive” or “health care power of attorney”)
  • Financial power of attorney giving another person the ability to pay your bills, move funds, direct the sale of property, and handle other financial matters as necessary

Estate plans are both difficult to consider and difficult to implement. The possibility of error that costs your loved ones time, energy, and money down the road is enormous, and the risk of making such errors increases dramatically if you try to handle it alone. A skilled lawyer’s help can be invaluable not only in setting up your original estate plan but also in administering that plan later.