Planning for the future is never easy. Wills, trusts and power of attorneys are complicated topics that require us to make concrete decisions, explore complex legal topics and family dynamics and ultimately contemplate our own mortality. While it’s tempting to put these big decisions on the back burner, avoiding these topics will create financial and emotional burdens for your loved ones in the long run.
When it comes to estate planning, the best time to start is today. “I always advise clients to plan as if something were going to happen tomorrow,” stated Sarah Smith of Butler & College Law Firm, who focuses her practice on estate planning. Having a comprehensive plan in place now is important because estate plans consist of so much more than a will or trust. Healthcare and financial powers of attorney are a critical part of your plan because they give your trusted loved ones the ability to make important decisions on your behalf.
Smith posed the question, “What if you are in a car accident and you become incapacitated, and you don’t have anyone with legal authority to pay your bills or make important medical decisions?” Without power of attorney documents in place, your loved ones would have to petition the court to be granted the ability to make decisions for you. But with the proper documentation, they would be able to act on your behalf immediately, which can be crucial in time-sensitive situations.
Guardianship is a vital component of estate planning for younger families. The idea of young children losing parents is heartbreaking to consider, however having a proper plan in place will ensure that children are taken care of by the trusted family member of your choice, keeping them out of the foster system and sheltering them from difficult court proceedings. Aside from properly documenting your wishes, Smith recommended, “when it comes to guardianship, it’s crucial to have those conversations with the people that you want to name in your documents, so that, God forbid something does happen, it’s not a surprise. You want to have a conversation with them as to what would be in the best interest of your children at that point in time.” Trusts are living documents that can be edited to adapt to ever-changing situations and relationships too. That means that your decisions aren’t set in stone, so don’t put them off just because you’re unsure of the best option.
It’s a common misconception that trusts are only for the wealthy, but having the right legal documents will not only ensure that your estate is divided up the way that you envision but will also streamline the estate administration process for your family, saving them precious time during an already stressful and harrowing situation.
Aside from having a properly executed will or trust, “people don’t realize the importance of having assets titled in the proper way and having their beneficiary designations updated,” warned Smith. The designations made on individual accounts will override the wishes you’ve shared in your will, so it’s vital that they’re updated regularly. One of the many benefits of working with a professional like Smith is having someone to guide you through the legal process, ensuring all of the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed along the way.
Another benefit of getting your own estate in order is the ability to suggest that elderly family members do the same. “It’s hard for my younger clients to have those conversations with their parents because they personally don’t want to think about their parents becoming older and passing away or not being able to take care of themselves,” said Smith. “But I’ve seen that it’s a little easier when they’ve gone through the legal process themselves and started that conversation with their parents that way. It’s a great time for them to say, ‘Hey mom and dad, I just updated all of my documents, so let’s take a look at what you have.’”
Whether you’ve been avoiding these sensitive topics or are trying to help guide elderly family members through the process of preparing for the future, having a well thought-out plan will save your family members time, alleviate stress and protect your finances as you navigate the process of aging.
By Lindsay C. Bishop