Talking about death is not easy, and many couples would prefer to avoid the conversation altogether. That's what makes the estate planning process such a daunting task, especially when considering the financial implications of each decision: You need to consider your family’s resources and goals for the present while setting in motion decisions that could impact your family far into the future.
Fortunately, your financial advisor can help you work with an estate attorney by facilitating those difficult conversations, such as explaining how estate planning works and how your resources can support your current and long-term goals. Here are the main things to keep in mind as you prepare for the estate planning process.
ESTABLISH YOUR ESTATE PLANNING GOALS WITH FAMILY
Each estate plan is unique. Sure, most plans use similar documents like wills, powers of attorney, and health care directives, but the plan’s design can be customized to your goals. If you have children, it is especially helpful to discuss the nuances of your situation. How do you and your partner feel about treating your children equally in the estate? Or do you have concerns or objectives for each child that could influence how you distribute it among them?
You must consider what ages you want the kids to inherit money. Would that money come in one lump sum or over time? Sometimes one of the kids may be ready to inherit a large sum before age 30, while another’s money management skills might suggest they should receive the sum spread over several years.
How much influence do you want over the money once you are gone, and for how long? Some clients try to assign one account to one child and another account to another child only to find out that not all assets are equal when you take taxes into consideration. Once you begin taking distributions, retirement accounts that were previously similar in size may quickly be tossed out of balance. Surprisingly, for people without kids, it can even be more difficult to decide how to design your estate plan.
UNDERSTANDING THE FUNDAMENTALS OF ESTATE PLANNING
Did you know that not all your assets will flow through your will? The idea that your will decides who inherits your wealth when you pass away is a common misconception. In fact, your will is used to determine who gets the money only if they do not legally know already how to distribute your assets. In reality, there are many ways that money transfers at your death.
Here are a couple of ways your assets may transfer outside of your will:
- Beneficiary Designations: Your retirement accounts, annuities, life insurance, etc., are all beneficiary driven assets for estate purposes. When you set up these accounts, you most likely elected beneficiaries – choosing the people or charities you want to inherit this money.
- Registrations: Each account you own outside of your retirement accounts is registered to the owner or owners of that account. For example, you may own a bank account or your home together with your spouse or partner. Typically, this registration is a Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship registration (JTWROS or "Joint" for short). When one of you dies, the surviving owner “inherits” the entire account.
- Trusts: The use of trusts in estate planning varies from estate to estate. You may be the beneficiary of an inherited estate, and the terms of the original trust dictate the terms of this asset. If you set up a trust, you can add controls about who gets what and when and how they will receive it.
Coordinating all of the ways your assets will transfer is part of your estate plan. Once your estate documents are completed, your financial advisor can help implement the recommended changes to registrations or beneficiaries so your estate plan will reflect your intent.
MAKING THE NUMBERS REAL
When we show our clients how the money will flow through their existing estate plan, it is often not what they expected. It might turn out someone is set to inherit more (or less) than they expected, or the estate plan was not fully implemented after completing the estate documents.
Putting numbers to the percentages you have elected helps visualize how much each person will receive. It may also help determine if you have the capacity to add or increase your gifts to charity as part of your estate plan. Planning in definite terms has benefits before death, as well: Running financial models with your financial advisor today can clarify your ability to give to your heirs or charities during your life, rather than after you pass. Clients who have chosen to gift during their life often find it rewarding to see their gifts in action.
Note that neither Birchwood Financial Partners, Inc. nor any of its employees give legal advice; please consult with your attorney for your specific situation.