Recently, my husband and I did something we’d never done in fifteen years of marriage. It was a little scary, a little awkward, but in the end, incredibly satisfying. That’s right- we worked with an attorney to have our estate documents drawn up.
And yes, it’s true, I felt a little like Jean-Luc Picard during the process. It’s a great feeling to make these important decisions and put them down on paper. Your estate is like a tiny (or huge- hey, I don’t know your circumstances) ship filled with your family and your assets, that for all these years you have cared for with love, vigilance, and thoughtfulness.
An important part of caring for your “ship” and in what will become your final act on this planet, you need to set up some instructions and instruments that will send that ship on its final voyage, as you go wherever you believe you go when your eyes close their final time.
If you are like me and somehow this has been on your to-do list for more than a decade, it’s really past time to do it, particularly if you have kiddos. Do you really want someone else or the courts deciding who will be the guardian of your children?! Even old documents should be updated if you have moved states (or countries), had another child, had a change in your financial circumstances, or if your relationships with your relatives have changed. Maybe Aunt Sally has gone cuckoo for Cocoa-Puffs and is not such a great choice anymore.
Estate planning is about a lot more than your Will (or Last Will and Testament as it says in fancy, bold letters at the top of the document). Your Will is a great place to start and if you are married, you each have one. A Will covers what happens to your assets and minor children when you die, but there is a lot more that you’ll want to consider- and for some, these other things may feel more important.
If you are in Washington state and married, and you want your spouse to inherit all your property in the event that you die, you may want to have a Community Property agreement too. There can be some downsides to this agreement, so as with all of these documents (and especially ANYTHING YOU READ IN THIS BLOG), consult an attorney. I am obviously NOT one.
Perhaps surprisingly, a number of the documents that you’ll complete during estate planning do not have to do with your death- they have to do with your life, should you become incapacitated or unable to make decisions yourself.
One of these documents is a General Power of Attorney. A Power of Attorney designates someone to make decisions on your behalf, should you become incapacitated or injured- if you have a massive stroke, or an accident, or Alzheimer’s. This document gives the person you designate, aka “the agent”, the ability to make all decisions (with an important exception that we’ll get to in a moment) on your behalf. This is a powerful document and I might argue, more important than a Will because it allows them to make decisions about your affairs and assets while you are still alive. So make sure your designate someone that you trust absolutely.
The next, related document is a Power of Attorney for Health Care. This one does the same thing, but specifically covers medical and health care decisions should you become unable to make decisions about yourself. Again, this is an incredibly powerful and important document because, you want to choose the person who will make these decisions on your behalf, and you want it to be the person who will have your wishes and desires front and center as they do so.
In some cases, you may not want to designate the same person for these two roles. You may want to separate financial responsibility from health care responsibility. If you do choose two different people, make sure they will work well together and understand why you gave each of them different responsibilities.
There is one more document that goes along with these two and it is also related to your health care. It’s the one decision that you want to make yourself and not place the burden of on loved one or (shudder) the State- that’s when to “pull the plug” or in slightly less direct terms, it’s a Living Will, which is a directive to not prolong your life in the case of a terminal condition or a persistent vegetative state.
At this same time, you can also complete a simple document that designates the handling of your remains. Buried, cremated, sent into space- whatever your choice, the more of these decisions you can make, so that your family doesn’t have to, will be a great kindness to them.
I think the reasons to do all these documents are pretty obvious, but it’s not something that people spend a lot of time thinking about, so I’ll run through a few of them, just to get you motivated.
Whether it is your death or a serious injury that leaves you incapacitated, you will want to ease the burden on your family to the greatest extent possible. During a time of crisis or grief, you’ll want your family supporting, not fighting, each other. Especially over things like what “your wishes or desires” would be.
Also, if there is anything that would be a surprise to your family, like you want brother “B” not brother “A” to be your children’s guardian, or if you want to designate friends, not relatives for any of those roles- you MUST HAVE THAT IN WRITING. Even if you told your friends and relatives, “I want our best friends to be our kids guardians.” and everyone agreed- if it’s not written down- it’s unlikely to happen. In the courts, blood is thicker than water unless you have written it down.
Oh, and let’s not forget taxes! How you structure your estate can have a big impact on estate taxes. Now, I am a big believer in everyone contributing their fair share to the running of our country via taxes, but without proper planning, you can end up contributing a lot more than that, and even worse- putting your family though the pain and expense of probate, when you may not need to.
Doing your estate planning is also a great opportunity for you and your spouse, and your family, to have some serious conversations. In addition to talking about our assets and guardians for our children, we also talked about what charitable organizations we wanted to support through our estate.
It’s incredibly important to take the time to do this- yes, you want your children taken care of, but if you designate a small fraction of your estate- say 10% (or more, if you have a big estate), to charity, you are creating an important legacy and setting a worthy example for your children to follow in their lives. Not to mention, sustaining organizations that have been important to you in your lifetime.
Another benefit of doing your estate planning is that you may inspire your parents, grandparents, or siblings to update their documents- which if it has been a number of years, almost certainly is a good idea. Your parents have set a good example for you for so many years, perhaps in this case, you can set a good example for them!
So, what does all this fancy paperwork cost and how much time does it take? In our case, we made two office visits and paid a flat fee ($850) for all the documents and attorney time. I am sure it can be done both more cheaply and more expensively- but like dental work or a medical procedure- I want it done well and done right the first time. Our attorney also provided us with a very nice binder, complete with two sets of documents, a CD copy (time to switch to a USB- who has a disk drive in their computer anymore?!), and a few other planning and checklists for things that can be covered outside of the Will- lists of accounts and assets, etc.,. I love having this very tangible binder ready to go, because someday, hopefully many, many years in the future- it WILL. BE. NEEDED. That’s just the facts, Jack.
There are “do it yourself sites” for legal documents, but I am personally wary of going this route. It’s just so easy to make a mistake. Furthermore, I want someone to talk with, someone who can answer questions, and in the event of my death or my husband’s, I want the surviving spouse to already have a relationship with a legal professional they trust, to help our family through this crisis. I don’t want to be browsing websites or soliciting input from relatives during such a tumultuous time.
Anytime of year is a good time of year to get your estate planning done, but given that it’s the end of one year and the beginning of another- why not put this on your New Year’s Resolution list and get it done soon? It may force some tough conversations, but you will sleep easier and have greater peace of mind, knowing that your needs and your wishes will be executed in the manner you desire and by the person or persons you designate to do so.
A few final thoughts- I am obviously not an attorney, so talk to a real one about anything you’ve read here. There are a lot of other estate planning mechanisms like Trusts (our Will creates one, for example) that I did not cover- so if I missed something, add a comment below about what you think is important. Also, if you are local- I’m happy to recommend the attorney we worked with, Gerald Sprute– he was knowledgeable, patient, and easy to work with.
Thanks for reading and sharing! I hope you feel a little better informed and inspired to captain the ship of your estate into the future!