Estate Planning: Tips for Preparing for the Future 

Updated on 04/16/2024

Estate Planning: Tips for Preparing for the Future 

Have you ever wondered what happens to your stuff when you’re not around anymore? It’s not the cheeriest topic, sure, but it’s definitely important. That’s where estate planning comes into play. 

Think of estate planning as a way to set the stage for what happens to your belongings, like your house, car, or even your beloved comic book collection, after you pass away. It also helps take care of your family by outlining your wishes clearly. 

Let’s break down why estate planning matters and how you can start thinking about it; no law degree is required!

8 Key Moments to Consider Estate Planning

Estate planning is often thought of as something only older adults need to consider, but in reality, many life events call for at least a basic plan, no matter your age. It’s about preparing for the unexpected and ensuring that your wishes are respected and your loved ones are taken care of. 

Here are some key moments when you might consider estate planning:

  1. Reaching Legal Adulthood: You are legally an adult and can make decisions about who should make medical or financial decisions on your behalf if you cannot. Basic documents like a healthcare directive or a power of attorney become important.
  2. Acquiring (or Losing) Significant Assets (like a car, savings, or investment accounts): Even if you don’t think you own much, deciding who should receive these assets if something happens to you helps avoid potential conflicts or legal hassles for your family. 
  3. Getting Married or Divorced: Marriage changes your legal status and often your financial situation. Divorce means splitting up assets and making new plans for your future, including changing beneficiaries on life insurance, retirement accounts, and revising your will or trust. You’ll want to decide how your assets are managed and distributed in the event of your death or incapacity, and whom you would trust to make decisions on your behalf.
  4. Having Children: Probably the most critical time to consider estate planning. You need to appoint a guardian for your children in case both parents pass away, and set up provisions for their care and financial support.
  5.  Buying a Home: Real estate complicates your estate because it’s a significant asset that needs to be handled properly to ensure it passes to your intended beneficiaries without undue burden.
  6. Starting a Business: Business ownership needs careful estate planning to handle succession and to protect the business and your family’s financial security if something happens to you.
  7. Changes in Relationships: If your relationship with someone named in your will changes, or if they predecease you, you’ll need to update your documents accordingly. 
  8. Health Changes: Health changes can lead to increased urgency in making sure your affairs are in order, particularly concerning decisions about medical treatment and care.

Estate planning is not just a “one and done” task—it should be revisited regularly, especially after major life changes. If you’re at any of these life stages or if it’s been a while since you last reviewed your estate plan, it might be time to sit down and take another look. 

What’s a Will and Why Do You Need One?

A will is pretty much what it sounds like—it’s a legal document where you write down who should get what after you’re gone. This could be as simple as leaving your baseball card collection to your nephew or your jewelry to your best friend. 

Without a will, there’s no guarantee those wishes are followed, because state laws often step in and make those decisions for you. They might not match what you would have wanted.

Having a will is like having the last word on what happens with your things and can save your family a lot of guessing and stress during a tough time. Plus, if you have kids, a will is important because it’s where you can name who you want to take care of them if something happens to you.

The contents can vary widely based on personal preferences and the complexity of your assets, but here are some common elements that people usually include in their wills:

  • Executor: This is where you name the person (or persons) who will be in charge of managing your estate. This includes distributing your assets according to your wishes, paying any debts or taxes, and handling the day-to-day details of wrapping up your affairs.
  • Beneficiaries: These are the people or organizations that you want to receive something from your estate. You can specify who gets specific items, like a piece of jewelry or a sum of money, or you can make more general allocations, such as percentages of your remaining assets after debts and taxes are paid.
  • Guardianship: If you have minor children or dependents, you can specify who you would like to take care of them. This is crucial for ensuring they are cared for by someone you trust in the event of your absence.
  • Specific Gifts: This part of the will is where you list specific items or amounts of money that you want to leave to individuals or charities. For example, you might leave a car to a niece or a sum of money to your favorite charity.
  • Residual Estate: After specific gifts are given out, your estate may contain leftover assets. The residual estate clause dictates who gets these remaining assets. You might divide the residue equally among your children, for instance.
  • Funeral Instructions: While it’s common to think about including funeral preferences in a will, such as whether you want to be buried or cremated, it’s important to note that wills are often read after funeral arrangements need to be made. Therefore, it’s a good idea to communicate these wishes to your family or include them in a separate document, like an advance healthcare directive or a funeral planning declaration, that is more immediately accessible upon your passing.
  • Special Conditions: Sometimes, wills include conditions on inheritances, such as age restrictions (e.g., a beneficiary must be 25 years old to inherit) or stipulations that must be met for the beneficiary to receive their inheritance (like graduating from college).
  • Signatures and Witnesses: To make a will legally valid, it must be signed in the presence of witnesses, who also sign the will. The requirements can vary by state, so it’s important to ensure all legal criteria are met.

Writing a will is an important step in ensuring your wishes are respected and your loved ones are taken care of in your absence. Consulting with a legal professional can help make sure your will is thorough and valid under local laws.

Trusts: Not Just for the Rich and Famous

When people hear the word “trust,” they often think it’s something only wealthy people need. But that’s not really the case. 

A trust is just another tool in the estate planning toolkit that lets you manage how your assets are handled both during your life and afterward. You can set up a trust to reduce taxes, protect your estate from creditors, or control how and when your money is given to the people you care about, like making sure your kids don’t spend their inheritance all at once!

Trusts come in many shapes and sizes. For example, a revocable trust can be changed or canceled as long as you’re still around. This flexibility lets you adjust as your life changes.

Legal Considerations: The Nitty-Gritty

Getting into the legal side of things, estate planning can feel a bit daunting. Here are a few pointers to keep it straightforward:

  • Choose the right executor and trustee. These are the people who will manage your estate and trust. Pick someone who’s responsible and in a good position to take on these tasks.
  • Think about taxes and debts. Your estate plan should consider how to handle debts and taxes that might be due after your death, so your family isn’t caught off guard.
  • Stay updated. Life changes, like getting married, having kids, or buying a house, can affect your estate plan. Make sure to review your will and trust regularly and update them as needed.

Getting Started

Starting with estate planning doesn’t have to be a big ordeal. Here are a few tips to get you rolling:

  • List your assets. This includes everything you own—from your savings accounts to your vinyl record collection.
  • Think about your family’s needs. What will they need to be secure if you’re not around? How can your estate plan help with that?
  • Consult a professional. It’s a good idea to talk to an attorney who specializes in estate planning. They can guide you through creating a will, setting up trusts, and all the legalities involved.

Estate planning isn’t just for the elderly or the ultra-rich; it’s a practical step for anyone who wants to ensure the care of their belongings and loved ones. With a bit of preparation and advice from the right people, you can set up a plan that fits your needs and gives you peace of mind. 

So why not get started? Your future self (and your family) will thank you!