Most Americans do not have a Will. They haven’t prepared a financial Power of Attorney, and they aren’t even sure what an Advance Directive is. If you are among them, then preparing an estate plan should be at the top of your to-do list.
But even if you have an estate plan in place, it may be missing a crucial element—provisions for your digital assets. These include the electronic data stored on your computer or smart phone, your Internet accounts like LinkedIn and Gmail, and your online pictures and documents.
Imagine if the state of Maryland planned your funeral. Your loved ones could gather in a state-run funeral chapel under the hum of florescent lights. Amid plastic chrysanthemums and piped-in organ music, you would be eulogized by a state employee who had never met you. With little to go on, he could speak favorably of your diligence in paying your taxes and avoiding incarceration. Then your remains would be conveyed to a public cemetery and interred beneath a marker bearing the identifier by which the state knows you best—your Social Security number.
How does that sound? Like a Las Vegas wedding, this scenario may have a certain kitsch appeal, but most of us would prefer something a bit more personal. Fortunately, the state won’t plan your funeral, even if you fail to do so. But if you die without a Will, it will plan your estate, and the results can be just as regrettable.
Revocable living trusts have been marketed so successfully that many people think they can’t live—or die—without one. The promises of avoiding probate, ensuring privacy, and preparing for incapacity seem too enticing to pass up. Suze Orman, the popular financial guru, goes so far as to say that “everyone” needs a revocable living trust. But what everyone really needs is some good advice.
Living trusts can be useful in limited circumstances, but most of us are simply better off without one. A revocable living trust is essentially a substitute for a Will. Rather than having your estate administered through probate, you would retitle your assets in the name of a trust created for this purpose. Because the trust is revocable, you can amend or revoke it as necessary during your lifetime. Upon your death, the trust becomes irrevocable and your trustee simply distributes the assets to your beneficiaries. Time is saved, costs are minimized, and probate is avoided. What’s not to like?