One of the most difficult conversations I have with clients is about their estate plan. It is a topic that forces us to face our mortality, and accept that world will continue to turn after our death. Crafting an estate plan allows you to be sure your wishes are fulfilled, even after you have died. There are some basic estate documents that everyone needs to have in place. There are others that you may need depending on your unique circumstance. You should speak with a qualified financial planner or estate attorney to determine any additional documents you need to have.
Last Will and Testament – The will is a legally binding document that outlines where your assets go after your death. This is where you decide who gets your prized baseball card collection, the Corvette, and your home. This is also where you decide who will become your children’s guardian (also called a Nomination of Guardianship provision), and who will be in charge of managing your estate (ie. Executor). You can also attach a non-legally binding letter to the will called a Letter of Last Instruction, which allows you to outline wishes for things such as your funeral, do you want to be buried or cremated, and more.
Powers of Attorney (POA) – There are two primary types of POA; Healthcare and Financial. These documents let you to decide who will make medical and financial decisions for you in the event that you are not capable of making decisions yourself. The same person does not have to be the POA for both; it may be advisable to have a different person serve in each capacity. An important point is that you name a contingent POA should the primary POA be unwilling (or unable) to serve. For example, if you name your spouse as your primary POA and you are both in a car accident, who would you want to make medical and financial decisions for you?
Living Will – This document outlines your desires for medical treatment in the event of scenarios such as being in a permanent vegetative state, terminally ill but still strong, or imminently dying. You might remember Terri Schiavo, a young woman whose family fought a very public court battle on the decision to keep her on life support many years after an accident left her in a vegetative state. If she had a living will, her family would have known her wishes. Unfortunately, after the accident is too late to make your wishes known.
Ethical Will – Estate documents tend to be very cold, harsh writings, full of legal jargon. Although they may outline the what of your wishes, they don’t usually outline the why. The ethical will gives you the chance to tell your story without all of the lawyer talk. This document can be anything you want it to be, and is your opportunity to tell people what you want them to know after your death. This might be a general letter of life lessons you learned or an explanation of why you left your money to charity instead of your kids. One man wrote a letter containing advice learned from 90 years of life experiences to his 4-year-old great grandson to be opened on his 20th birthday. It could be an audio or video recording, a book, or pictures. It can be anything that allows you to tell your story.
Although thinking about your death is not a happy topic, it is something that must be thought through. Do not leave your family without guidance on what your wishes are. Court battles, strained family relationships, guilt, and more can be avoided by drafting these basic estate documents.
Do you have these documents in place? If not, is there a reason?