Planning is a part of nearly everything we do in life. It's even a part of dying. How will you preserve your assets from estate taxes and probate fees? How will you ensure distribution according to your wishes? Who will make financial and medical decisions in the event of your incapacity?

By taking certain steps in advance, you will have a greater say in how these questions are answered.

Wills and Trusts

Wills and trusts are two of the most popular estate planning tools. Both will allow you to spell out how you would like your property to be distributed, but they also go far beyond that.

Just about everyone needs a will. A will enables you to determine the distribution of your property, and gives you the opportunity to nominate your executor as well as name guardians for minor children or other minors that you currently have guardianship over. If you fail to make such designations through your will, the decisions will be left to the courts. Bear in mind, however, that property distributed through your will is subject to probate, which can be a time-consuming and costly process.

Trusts differ from wills in that they are actual legal entities. Like a will, trusts spell out how you want your property distributed. Trusts let you customize the distribution of your estate with the added advantages of property management and probate avoidance.

Wills and trusts are not mutually exclusive. While not everyone with a will needs a trust, all those with trusts should have a will as well.

Durable Power of Attorney for Finances

Incapacity poses almost as much of a threat to your financial well-being as death does. Fortunately, there are tools that can help you cope with this threat.

A durable power of attorney is a legal agreement that avoids the need for a conservatorship and enables you to designate, in advance, the person or persons who will make your legal and financial decisions if you become incapacitated. Unlike a standard power of attorney, durable powers remain valid even if you become incapacitated.

Health Care Proxies and Living Wills

Similar to the durable power of attorney, a health care proxy or health care power or attorney is a document in which you designate someone to make your health care decisions for you if you are incapacitated. The person you designate can generally make decisions regarding medical facilities, medical treatments, surgery, and a variety of other health care issues. Much like the durable power of attorney, the health care proxy involves some important decisions. Take the utmost care when choosing who will make them.

A related document, the living will, also known as a directive to physicians or a health care directive, spells out the kinds of life-sustaining treatment you will permit or prohibit in the event of your incapacity. The directive creates an agreement between you and the attending physician. The decision for or against life support is one that only you can make. That makes the living will a valuable estate planning tool. And you may use a living will in conjunction with a durable health care power of attorney. Bear in mind that laws governing the recognition and treatment of living wills may vary from state to state. You should consult a qualified professional who is familiar with the law in your state when preparing these documents.

Estate Planning Tip

Keep all your important financial and legal information in a central file for your executor and make sure your executor knows where to locate the file. Be sure to include:

  • will and trust documents
  • titles and deeds
  • bank/financial statements
  • brokerage account statements
  • insurance policies
  • income tax returns
  • medical records
  • final instruction letters

The information provided here is to assist you in planning for your future. Proper tax and legal advice should always be obtained.