Advice: Estate Planning
Completing Your Estate Plan
Most estate plans are woefully incomplete, and heirs and loved ones often suffer. Of course, too many people don't have any estate plan. Of those that do, some think a living trust or joint title to assets with their spouse is all they need. Others think a will and trust is a complete estate plan. There is much more to an estate plan.
Your estate plan must do more than allocate assets and minimize taxes.
A key element of the complete estate plan, that I call the Financial Emergency Kit, is a group of documents and other tools. The kit keeps difficult times from becoming much worse and helps avoid problems. A good estate planner focuses on these tools in the planning process, and the wise estate owner insists they be part of the plan. This part of the estate plan should be completed even when there is difficulty deciding on the rest of the plan.
The beneficiary book can take any form but it contains all the items discussed in this article, plus any other items you believe might be helpful to the estate executor or loved ones. It could be a three-ring loose-leaf notebook, a large file folder, or some other way of organizing documents. The book is designed primarily for the executor, but it also will be useful in case of incapacitation. Putting the book together and keeping it up to date also can help you better manage your finances. The executor and key loved ones should know about the book and where it is stored.
Here is an example of the importance of the beneficiary book. Tom Carvel founded a chain of well-known ice cream stores, located primarily in the northeast. In 1990 he sold it for around $200 million.
He died a few years later. He had very complicated finances, with numerous trusts and partnerships. He apparently knew and understood the structure. Unfortunately, he did not share even the big picture with anyone and did not leave many records. As a result, his estate was rapidly depleted by legal fees and other costs of defining the estate and determining who should receive the assets.
Essential records that should be compiled in the book include recent income tax returns (both personal and business), the latest will, any trusts, insurance policies (all types of insurance), financial account statements, personal financial statements, loan documents, deeds, property titles, and a list of advisors used. Be sure to list jointly-owned property, partnerships, and other shared property. The organizational documents and other details of businesses should be included.
It might be more convenient to reference some records instead of including them in the notebook. For example, financial account statements could be kept in a filing cabinet. Then, the beneficiary book should have a section listing the accounts and where the documents can be found.
There might be other things you need to add. Online access information for accounts, debts, and accounts that automatically bill a credit card or draft a bank account are some possibilities.
The notebook should be well-organized and up-to-date. I often refer to this as the best gift someone can leave heirs. It reduces both the cost and emotional burden of dealing with estate administration.
A financial power of attorney (POA) is essential. This gives someone the legal authority to manage your finances and assets if you become disabled or are otherwise unable to manage your assets. If there is no power of attorney, loved ones must spend time and money to have a court appoint someone, and it might be someone you wouldn't have picked.
It often is not enough to simply execute a POA for it to be effective. Most financial institutions accept only their own forms and want them in their files before the owner becomes disabled. They might not accept other forms or might take time to review them before allowing transactions.
Entrepreneurs need a business succession plan. The plan can involve either long-term successors or caretaker managers who run the operation until it is sold or there is a long-term solution. Some business owners name key employees who can be trusted to keep the operation going. Others name a trusted outsider who knows the business generally but well enough to oversee it for a while.
The succession plan should be in writing and reviewed with everyone involved. Bankers, creditors, suppliers, and other important contacts should know about the plan and any role they would have in implementing it.
Beneficiary designations should be reviewed for the many assets not transferred by a will and the probate process. These assets include IRAs, employer retirement plans, life insurance, and annuities. The next owner is determined by the beneficiary designation form. Always keep copies of these forms (which usually are a part of the application) and review them periodically. It is a good idea to name contingent beneficiaries in addition to the primary beneficiary.
Health care documents are essential so someone can make medical decisions in case of incapacity. There are several choices. The simplest is the living will. It gives general instructions about which medical procedures are and are not to be used. Studies show, however, that living wills have little effect. Often the doctors don't see them until after decisions have been made, and the instructions are too vague to be useful in many situations.
A better document is the health care power of attorney. This gives an individual or group of individuals the right to make decisions. For it to be effective, all the principal's regular doctors must have the current document in the front of their charts along with information on how to reach the agents. Also, each agent should have a copy.
Funeral and burial instructions take a burden off heirs. In most states, these have limited legal effect, but heirs generally follow them.
Other letters of instruction also can be valuable, though they also have no legal effect. If the will places property in a trust for someone's benefit, you might write a letter to the trustee stating the reasons for establishing the trust, suggestions for the investment policy, and the standards for making distributions. If the will gives the executor of the estate discretion over some items, a letter can provide some thoughts about their disposition. An instruction letter is particularly helpful when the estate has a business, real estate, or unusual items such as collections.
Insurance policies should be up-to-date and well-organized. In addition to the usual property and casualty policies, in today's litigious society a personal umbrella liability policy is essential low-cost protection against many possible claims. Most people should consider $3 million to $5 million of coverage, costing a few hundred dollars per year.
Many people overlook disability insurance. The odds of being disabled from work depend on one's occupation and health. Most people should buy a policy that triggers coverage when they are unable to perform their current jobs. Less expensive policies provide benefits only to those who are unable to perform any job. Those policies have a much lower probability of paying benefits.
A cash flow plan is a big help. An estate might be valuable but have few liquid assets. Bills need to be paid while the estate is being settled. The executor and holder of a power of attorney should know where the liquid assets are and where to get cash to pay bills. Again, financial institutions are likely to insist on having their own POA completed before recognizing an agent's authority over accounts.
Having a source of credit, such as home equity line, arranged also isn't a bad idea. Loved ones might need it to pay emergency medical bills or other unexpected expenses. The alternative might be to sell valuable assets in a hurry and at an inopportune time. Other good sources of credit are no-fee credit cards with fairly large credit limits and brokerage accounts that allow margin loans or lines of credit.
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