Estate Planning: More Than A Will

By Parag P. Patel, Esq.

During our lifetime, most of us strive to create and build upon our net worth. We generate savings, purchase a home, and eventually invest in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, IRAs and retirement plans. Unfortunately, most of us risk losing an unnecessarily large amount of these assets by failing to plan to protect them.

Recent surveys have revealed that over 40% of our population does not have a will. For those individuals, their death often creates a scenario whereby their family must needlessly waste money to petition the court for an individual to administer the estate. In many instances, this insult is compounded by the assets being subject to taxes, which could easily have been avoided. Thus, an integral part of anyone’s financial planning must be an estate plan.

Traditionally, an estate plan was simply a will. However, with the growing medical needs of an aging population, as well as the ever-present threat of the Internal Revenue Service, prudent estate planning requires additional protections for all of us. Even the best written will has little value if one’s assets are depleted in later years by health care costs which can be mitigated or borne by someone else.

Any prudent estate plan should address four questions:

(1) Where do I want my money to go after I am dead?

(2) How can I minimize any taxes as a result of my death?

(3) How can I protect my estate and myself if I become disabled?

(4) Do I want my life to be extended by life support even though a medical event has left me in critical condition without any hope of recovery?

The basic documents, which are necessary to answer these questions, are a will, living will and power of attorney. A will declares who shall inherit an individual’s assets (the beneficiaries) and who shall be responsible for distributing them to such beneficiaries (the executor). For young parents, a will can also be used to appoint a guardian for their children and a trustee to manage a child’s money until they are old enough to handle it themselves.

Often, individuals wish to care for their spouse first, then their children. Often, this intention is reflected in a will. If you die without a will, though, your spouse is only entitled to the first $50,000.00 outright. In New Jersey, he or she must split the rest of your assets with your children, no matter how young or old they are. If you have no children, your parents step into their place.

Even if you have a will, your assets are not completely protected. It is necessary to execute a Power of Attorney to provide to appoint someone to care for you and your assets if you are disabled. Individuals, who become disabled mentally and do not have a power of attorney, can only be protected by an expensive and humiliating procedure known as a guardianship, whereby they are judged to be “incompetent” in the public forum of a court.

Finally, a living will should be executed to announce your intentions in the event an accident, stroke or other serious medical event leaves you brain dead or physically depleted of any possible quality of life. A living will protects your assets from being used for unnecessary and costly life support. Without a living will, there is no authority, outside of a court proceeding, to allow a doctor to discontinue this treatment.

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