“I need to get my will done.”
Ever heard anyone say that? They’re right. Ever said it yourself? You’re right.
But if all you do is get your will done, you’re not done. You’re done with your will, sure. But you’re not done with your estate plan, and that is what you need.
A proper estate plan includes all of the four essentials (and maybe a lot more). Your will is, of course, one of them. Among other things, your will provides instructions for the disposition of your assets, i.e., who gets what. In your will you also appoint the personal representative for your estate, i.e., the person who will marshal your assets, pay your debts, and distribute the rest as you have instructed. And if you have children, your will is where you name their guardian or guardians in the event that both you and your spouse pass away while they are still minors.
The second estate plan essential is your beneficiary designations. For example, if you have a life insurance policy, you need to designate who gets the death benefit when you die, and if you have a retirement account, you need to designate who gets what’s left in that account when you die. Technically, you don’t have to name a beneficiary, but the default is usually that the death benefit or account balance goes into your probate estate and passes according to your will. For several reasons (like access and income taxes), that is usually not an ideal result. You don’t have something that needs a beneficiary designation? Maybe, but you’d better check your assets and make sure.
So . . . what else? Well, a proper estate plan addresses not only what happens at your death, but also what happens if you become disabled or incapacitated during your lifetime. So the third essential is your power of attorney, in which you appoint an attorney-in-fact, someone who will act for you with respect to your financial and personal affairs if you can’t act or make decisions yourself. The fourth essential is your health care proxy, in which you appoint a health care agent, someone who will make health care decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself. These are really important, as the alternative usually involves a court appointing a guardian or conservator to make decisions for you. Choosing in advance who you want to make decisions for you? Good. Leaving that choice to a court? Bad.
Count ‘em, that’s four. Of course, there’s a whole lot more to estate planning than just the four essentials. But even if your situation is relatively simple, you’ve got to have at least these. So don’t just get your will done. Get what you really need, an estate plan.
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