Next Week is National Estate Planning Awareness Week

By Richard A. Behrendt

Oct. 21, 2014

In 2006 a group of bipartisan congressmen and congresswomen co-authored and passed legislation designating the third week of October each year for a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of estate planning.  This year, the sixth annual National Estate Planning Awareness Week is this week.

It has been estimated that as many as 120 million Americans do not have an up-to-date estate plan. The myth that only the wealthy need an estate plan prevents some of us from putting our estate planning house in order. Others may simply recoil from the discomfort of confronting our own mortality. Legal fees can be another hurdle, although the costs of not having an estate plan often exceeds the legal fees to obtain a basic set of estate planning documents.

What are some of the documents you should have as part of your own comprehensive estate plan?

- Last will and testament - A last will and testament directs how assets titled in your individual name will be distributed after your death. Without a will, assets titled in your name will be distributed according to the laws of the state where you live, sometimes leading to unintended beneficiaries receiving some or all of your estate. A will should also appoint an executor or personal representative who oversees the administration of your estate.  If you have minor children, it is important to include a provision appointing a guardian to raise the minor(s) until the age of majority.

- Revocable Trust - For some, a revocable trust is a better alternative to a will because a trust allows assets to pass to beneficiaries without the delay, expense and public record of a probate proceeding. A revocable trust is often called a “living trust” because it helps to consolidate and manage assets during lifetime, as opposed to a will which only takes effect at death. An important consideration in trust planning is identifying the right person to designate as successor trustee. Naming one or more family members as successor trustee(s) may be appropriate, or in some cases naming a corporate successor trustee may be preferred.

- Durable power of attorney - A durable power of attorney for financial matters authorizes someone else to manage your financial affairs in the event you become incapacitated. A carefully drafted DPOA allows your appointed agent to act on your behalf to file income tax returns, file a claim for tax refunds and apply for Social Security, Medicare and other benefits.

- Advance health care directives - A Power of Attorney for Health Care (POAHC) and a Declaration of Living Will are two essential documents to have in place in the event you become incapacitated. A POAHC allows your agent to consult with your physician and other caregivers if you are not able to communicate on your own behalf. A Declaration of Living Will allows you to make important end-of-life decisions, such as whether you wish to be kept alive on a feeding tube if you fall into an irreversible vegetative state.

- Ancillary documents and considerations - You may also want to prepare a written memorandum of who should receive your personal property, such as jewelry and collectibles.  Another important document to have is a form that complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which protects the privacy of your medical records. It is also a good idea to provide written funeral instructions that can be easily found and followed by your loved ones. Lastly, you may want to prepare a document describing how you want your final remains to be handled.

In summary, everyone, not just the wealthy, should have some form of an estate plan.  The sixth annual National Estate Planning Awareness Week may be the perfect time to meet with an estate planning attorney to prepare or update your own estate plan.

Richard A. Behrendt is the Director of Estate Planning at Annex Wealth Management, with offices in Elm Grove and Mequon.