“My friends are my estate,” said Emily Dickinson, the reclusive American poet. Many of us can appreciate the sentiment. When asked about writing a will, we shrug. “What have I got to leave anyone besides a little Subaru and a lot of student loan debt?”
The truth is that estate planning is just as essential for the rich as for the unrich because a properly drafted plan does more than simply divide up your worldly goods. It ensures that people you trust are in charge in case something should happen to you, and it protects any children you may have. Here’s how it works:
First, having a will puts the right person in charge of your estate to ensure that your final wishes are carried out. Dying without a will would mean leaving it to the courts to appoint your personal representative, also known as the executor.
A spouse or parent has first priority to take on this job, but in some cases, the responsibility may be given to an unscrupulous aunt or an estranged brother who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Especially if your personal representative is someone who disapproved of your way of life as a member of the LGBT community, the outcome could be deeply regrettable.
Writing a will is also an opportunity to distribute items that may have more sentimental than monetary value. Making arrangements for your favorite nephew to receive your grandfather’s pocket watch, or for your former partner to have the print you bought together, can provide a great deal of personal satisfaction.
The truth is that estate planning is just as essential for the rich as the unrich because a properly drafted plan does more than simply divide up your worldly goods.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to have children, a will can name the guardians who will look after them until they reach adulthood. The ultimate decision as to who the guardians will be is up to the courts, but they will generally follow the wishes stated in a parent’s will—if there is one.
Many parents of young children have taken out life insurance policies so their children will be provided for in case the unexpected happens. In this case, the will can establish a trust for the children and appoint the trustees. The insurance policy’s death benefit would fund the trust, and the trustee would then manage these assets on the children’s behalf.
The trustee can usually make distributions in his discretion for the children’s health, education, and general support. At certain ages, the children could receive automatic distributions of principal—say, half at the age of 25 and the remainder at 30, when the trust would terminate. The parents in this case may not be rich, but their life insurance creates a financial legacy the will can effectively manage.
Whether you have children or not, your estate plan should include more than just a will itself. Other essential documents include a Durable Power of Attorney and an Advance Medical Directive.
The Power of Attorney enables you to name someone who will manage your finances in case you become unable to. The person you appoint, called your “attorney in fact,” can help you get through a period of incapacity by accessing your bank account to pay your bills, entering your safe deposit box to retrieve important papers, or even mortgaging or selling your house if the circumstances call for it.
An Advance Medical Directive is like a Power of Attorney but for medical matters. It allows you to designate a health care “agent” who will work with your doctors if you are under medical care and can’t speak for yourself.
These documents can be especially important for the young and healthy among us. Why? Because for someone in good health, a period of incapacity could last a very long time, making it essential to have the right person in charge of your health and finances.
In one of her most famous poems, Emily Dickinson said she could not stop for death. Even with modest assets, having a well-crafted estate plan will ensure that you are well prepared when it kindly stops for you.
Lee Carpenter is an Estates & Trusts attorney at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. This article is intended to provide general information about legal topics and should not be construed as legal advice. For qualified legal counsel contact Lee Carpenter at Lee.Carpenter@saul.com or 410.332.8626.