Too many people hear “When should you get an estate plan?” and think “When I’m 80.” Others only think about estate planning when they have children, or they get sick. A lot of other people think the answer to when you should get an estate plan is when you buy a house, or when you buy a motorcycle or sports car. Still, others think the answer to when should you get an estate plan is “When I retire.”
The real answer to the question of “When should you get an estate plan?” is now. Ask any estate planning attorney, and they will tell you their story of a client who kept putting off the estate planning process and how they had to rush the documents while their client was in hospice care. Many have horror stories of having to determine who is next of kin or a family finding banking documents many years after their loved one passed.
Many people also think that they have no need for estate planning, believing estate planning to be a rich person’s problem. The reality is that estate planning is just insurance policies, important for people no matter their income. You should really start estate planning as early as possible. Even if you’ve just become an adult, it is good to have a plan should something happen to you. It may sound absurd to have a will when you are living paycheck to paycheck with only a car as an asset but having a plan means you are not leaving your loved ones in the lurch.
Estate planning isn’t just making sure your property gets donated or given to your family, it is also about how you want to be celebrated. It is about what will happen to you after you pass. You can say that you want your body to go to science so that mens doctors can learn from it. You could choose an eco-casket that allows your body to become nutrients for a tree. You could choose the traditional embalming and cemetery burial. Once you have decided what will happen to your remains, you can also layout how you want to be remembered. Maybe you want to ban somber colors and have a raucous party thrown to encourage people to remember the good time. Maybe you want to have services at a park you loved instead of a place of worship. All of that can be put into your will by an estate planning lawyer.
A wills attorney won’t just talk to you about how you want to go out, or what to do with your physical stuff, they will also talk to you about your digital footprint. What will happen to all the pictures and documents on your computer or in your cloud, do you want a friend to just delete everything? Will your social media profiles be kept up and act as a memorial for friends and family, or would you prefer those accounts are deleted? What about your email account? All of these questions are part of the reason the answer to “When should you get an estate plan?” is “Now.”
Estate planning is not just for after you pass, a trusts and estates attorney will also talk to you about a living will and power of attorney should a tragic accident occur. Say your upstairs neighbor has contractors over for air conditioning installation, and they break off a chunk of your ceiling knocking you out. A living will provides direction for your care and the power of attorney appoints a person to follow your wishes while you are unable to act on your own behalf. If you are incapacitated then the doctors or hospital need to find someone who can make decisions on your behalf. If you do not have a living will and power of attorney, then they will automatically defer to the person legally designated as your next of kin. So if you live with your long-term romantic partner, but are not married then your next of kin would be a living parent then sibling then child, instead of the person you have chosen to spend your life with. If you are going through a divorce and do not have a living will, then the person you are divorcing would be the legal next of kin and be making those life or death decisions for you.
So you are convinced that the answer to “when should you get an estate plan” is “right this very second” and are wondering where to start. The answer is easy, find an estate planning attorney. This will be simple if you have purchased a house or know someone who has because most closing attorneys also work on wills. If you’ve forgotten the attorney’s name but did get a home title insurance policy then you have their name since the attorney is the title insurance agent. If you did not like your closing attorney, call your local probate court for a list of attorneys. You can also search estate planning lawyer or wills attorney near me and get a list of trusts and estates attorneys nearby, just like searching for movers or plumbing services.
Now you have your list of attorneys to contact be sure to choose one that makes you feel confident. Ask them the question, “when should you get an estate plan”, if they do not answer with “now” then you know to call the next number on your list. The attorney should be willing to discuss their fee schedule and process with you as well as complete a brief intake to make sure they can meet your needs. After you choose your lawyer, they will ask you about any assets such as retirement accounts like a 401K plan, Roth IRA, or union pension plan and any large or expensive property like a house, jewelry, or artwork. Your attorney will then discuss with you who you would want to be the executor or administrator of your estate, this is the person you trust to follow the directions in your will. The executor is typically your spouse or parent but can be a very close friend or sibling, adult child, or an attorney.
Once you have your executor or administrator, you will then need to decide if you want a living will or power of attorney if you are unexpectedly incapacitated. If you do decide to have a living will, you will then need to decide what level of care you would like to receive. After completing the living will, your next decision will be to appoint a person to be your medical agent by means of a power of attorney. This medical agent will have the same powers that you would have to direct your care should you be unable to speak on your behalf. Choosing who to appoint as your power of attorney is very important, this should be someone you have spoken about your medical history with, and someone who shares your medical beliefs because it is impossible to write out an exhaustive list of medical problems that could arise.
You will then be asked to appoint a conservator, should that be needed, as well. The conservator has the same responsibilities as the executor or administrator, but they hold those responsibilities while you are medically incapacitated or unable to make decisions for yourself. Typically, the conservator and the appointed power of attorney are the same person. Most estate planning attorneys will suggest someone slightly removed from your immediate family to ensure the appointee is less likely to be caught up in the same tragic accident that hospitalized you.
After you have decided who you trust to follow your wishes and make decisions on your behalf, your attorney will then ask you how you want your assets to be distributed. Maybe you want your belongings to be equally distributed between your children. Or you want to give some money to your favorite charity. Or you have pets and need to appoint a caregiver, so they do not end up being split between your beneficiaries on top of losing their owner. Maybe you want your friend to keep your social media accounts active, and you want your sibling to take care of your pets. Maybe you want your children to split the proceeds of selling your home but have your jewelry go to one child and furniture go to another.
Perhaps you don’t have children but want your retirement funds to pass to your sibling’s children. Perhaps you want to pass everything to charities. There are so many other ways to split up whatever you have to pass on after you die. Your attorney will tell you what limits there may be and will prepare your will to match your wishes. Once you have approved the estate planning documents, you will then sign them and your attorney will hold on to them or record them, whichever makes a legally enforceable will in your jurisdiction. They will stay as you signed them, till they are needed or until you decide to change them.
Still not convinced that the answer to when should you get an estate plan is now? Maybe you think all of this is overwhelming or feel that planning for you to get sick or die is just asking for bad luck to strike you. This is simply not true, imagine if you thought about residential plumbing like that? You don’t need to think about having plumbing until after you need it, so you would walk around with flour on your hands trying to find a bucket to go and pull water from the well in the middle of making cookies? That’s absurd, having a will is the same except instead of you getting water from the well it would be your family and the flour would be the grief over your loss. Just as plumbing services are available to make sure your home has flushing toilets before you need to go, there are estate planning services to make sure your family is taken care of when you are clear-headed before you pass.
If you are still unconvinced and think the answer to when should you get an estate plan is a vague point in the future, or when I have assets to pass on, then you should look into how probate courts operate where you live. If you die intestate, or without a will, then the court has to determine what to do with your remains, your property, and your digital footprint. The probate court does not do this for free and if you have family fighting over your beloved pet or the family home, then they may end up paying exorbitant legal fees and court costs. Having a will allows you to direct the costs associated with resolving your estate to only come from the proceeds of your estate instead of coming out of the pocket of your loved ones. Having a plan for after you pass means your loved ones do not have to learn to navigate the probate court system on top of dealing with their grief.
So now you’ve been converted to answer the question of “when should you get an estate plan” is “yesterday” and you’ve gotten the process started. You can feel confident that instead of hoping everything goes well after you pass, you have done everything you can to make your passing easier for your loved ones. You have done what you can to take care of your loved ones and made sure that your wishes will be followed. You have saved the beneficiaries of your estate the costs of probate court, and you have made sure that your social media accounts will be properly managed after you pass. Hopefully, estate planning has provided you with a sense of security about the future.