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Estate Planning Guide - Definition Basic Steps

No matter how much you own or where you stand financially, estate planning is essential. Putting a plan in place will provide instructions and legal directives that fulfill your wishes as to how your estate would be distributed, taken care of, and the like.

Imagine not having one in the unfortunate situation of passing away unexpectedly. You would not want to leave all that you own up for grabs for family members you may not be close to, and possibly the state. Additionally, not having a plan can cause confusion and stress when your family deals with all that is involved in your estate without any instructions or direction. As you can imagine, having an estate plan can make things much easier on those you care about.

What is Estate Planning?

It’s advanced planning for the distribution or management of an individual’s estate. This typically includes assets, financial and medical affairs, as well as care of dependents, and any last wishes to be carried out upon death, or if one was to become legally incapacitated. The main goal of implementing an estate plan is to put a safeguard in place in regard to your belongings, and such, so that family and others are provided for. An attorney is typically obtained to give guidance and ensure all legal documents are finalized properly. You can also visit Wikipedia for a more detailed estate planning definition.

Who needs estate planning?

Everyone should have an estate plan – from those who have just turned 18 who are no longer dependents, to seniors and everyone in between. Individuals in their 20s may feel they don’t need a plan, but it can at least consist of a healthcare directive and power of attorney in the event they are not able to make decisions for themselves.

Those in their 30s and 40s will have accumulated more assets; these items should be listed with instructions on who they will pass down to. This may include a house, cars, financial accounts, and the like. For individuals in their 50s and beyond, estate planning is especially essential for obvious reasons.

It’s worth noting that it’s never too late to start an estate plan; it’s just important that your affairs are squared away for the sake of your final wishes, and for those you care about. In sum, every adult should have an estate plan because it’s not about how much you have to pass on; it’s about planning ahead of time if something were to happen to you. Take a look at this great article on the topic of why everyone needs a will by Forbes.

Why is it Important to Have a Plan?

There are more than a few reasons why having an estate plan in place is essential. I’ll go over just a few. Let’s start with the simplest reason – your final wishes may not be met if no plan is in place. For instance, you may have special family heirlooms that you intended to hand down to certain family members, and it’s important to you. However, without an official plan in place, they could be up for grabs by the entire family or whoever has access to your belongings first. Or, worse yet, if you don’t have a will, the government may be in charge of distributing your assets per state law.

When an individual passes away without at least a legal will, they are said to have then died “intestate”. This simply means that they passed away without a valid will, and the estate will then need to go through probate court to be able to determine who will be in charge of distributing your assets, deciding who your children will be placed with, and the like.

If there is no one in the family who is willing to take on this role of being in charge, the courts will appoint a public trustee. Your family might need to hire an attorney at this point. This can be costly and stressful during an already difficult time.

The Estate Planning Process

Now that you realize why you need an estate plan, let’s go over the process on how it’s typically accomplished.

Step 1: Hire an Attorney or Tax Advisor Who Has the Appropriate Experience

The first and most important element is to hire an attorney. This brings up the question – What does an estate planning attorney do? A lawyer such as this is well suited to guide you through all the legalities of estate planning. They will also know what legal documents are best for your particular situation.

An attorney will be up to date with the ever-changing laws that pertain to estate planning, which is essential to drafting up valid documents that will protect your assets and final wishes.

It’s also a good idea to seek the help of a professional certified public accountant. In reality, both a CPA and attorney are essential for creating a well-rounded and protected estate plan, but it can be expensive to hire two professionals. With that in mind, we recommend seeking out a dual-licensed attorney/CPA that deals in estate planning. A company or individual who is dually accredited can take care of the entire process for you.

Here is a short list of what a dual-licensed attorney/CPA is accustomed to taking care of for their clients:

  • Drafting and finalizing all legal documents
  • Provide ways to avoid probate court
  • Set up necessary trusts to protect your assets
  • Establish durable power of attorney
  • Direct the transfer of assets to beneficiaries
  • Provide a strategy to reduce the tax burden on those who inherit the estate
  • Ensure retirement plans and insurance policies are dispersed accordingly
  • Meet with those involved in the creation of the estate plan or reading of the will

How Much Does Estate Planning Cost?

When it comes to estate plans, there is really no one-size-fits-all, and therefore, the price can vary greatly. But typically, the cost will originate from your attorney or CPA.

Here are just a few things that can determine the total cost of your estate planning:

  • The more elements you include in your plan, the higher the price. For example, it will be much less expensive if you only require a healthcare directive and power of attorney, compared to needing a full estate plan with multiple assets, retirement accounts, and so on.
  • The complexity of the documents can determine pricing. For instance, if you own assets in several states, different laws may apply to each state, making it more complex and time-consuming.
  • Price will vary if you do the legwork in filling out documents, or instead request that your attorney do this for you.
  • The level of experience of the attorney/CPA that you choose can determine the overall cost.

Since there are multiple elements to factor in, it would be impossible to list exact pricing. However, we can estimate the price will be anywhere from $150 to $3,000, and higher. It’s best to meet with a prospective attorney/CPA to get an estimate of how much a good plan will cost you, and if they charge a flat fee or hourly billing. Fortunately, you will find that most have free consultations.

Step 2: Create a List of all Assets

After you have your attorney/CPA in place who will get things started for you, it’s time to take inventory of all your assets – an estate planning checklist of everything you would like included. This list will later be used when drafting up your plan.

The items on this list should include everything – valuable items you are passing on to your family, as well as small items that will not be inherited by those close to you. Less valuable personal belongings and items that don’t have much meaning should still be included with instructions on what your wishes are for them. For instance, you might list your clothing with instructions to donate them to the local woman’s shelter.

Below you will find a list of assets that are typically included:

  • Property: This would include your current house, any vacation homes, or vacant land, and the like.
  • Personal Items:  You should list 1) valuable items such as art, jewelry, motor vehicles, collections, antiques, valuable furniture, high-end electronics, family heirlooms, and similar. 2) Items with high sentimental value, such as photographs. 2) Items with little monetary value like clothing, common furniture, and the like, that are not being gifted to anyone, can be listed as “all remaining household items”; and include detailed instructions as to what to do with them. This is done so others will not have to figure out what to do with the non-valuable/unsentimental items that are left.
  • Money Accounts: Make a note of all money accounts in your name – checking, savings, certificates of deposit, as well as digital currencies such as cryptocurrency accounts.
  • Money that is Owed to You: Loans or promissory notes with the amount owed and by whom.
  • Businesses: Include any companies you own or have partial ownership in.
  • Stocks or Bonds:  Stock brokerage accounts, bonds, as well as mutual fund accounts.
  • Retirement Plans: Typical retirement plans such as 401k, IRA, and profit-sharing accounts.
  • Insurance Policies: This includes traditional life insurance and annuities.

It’s worth noting that institutions such as banks and brokerage firms typically ask that a beneficiary be listed, which supersedes what may be included in the legal will.

Non-Assets you Should Consider:

  • Digital Accounts: Although not an asset, digital accounts can be included in your estate planning. With that said, it would be wise to make a list that includes email addresses, social media accounts, and the like. Along with each one, provide the username and password. This will allow an appointed person to go into each account to close them for you. This is not necessary if you would rather not provide your login information to anyone.
  • Monthly Bills/Liabilities: Draft a list of all your monthly bills. Designate which items are recurring auto withdrawals. This may include utilities, car payments, as well as streaming channel subscriptions. Having an appointed person notify these companies of your passing so they can close these accounts immediately is necessary to avoid accruing charges that may complicate matters.

Step 3: Determine the Inheritors, Appointees, and Desired Directives

Before having your final documents drafted up, you and your attorney will determine what should be done ahead of time so that nothing is forgotten. Below you will find a list of common aspects of estate planning that you will want to take into account:

Appoint an Executor: Select someone you trust and who you know can handle the role of an executor. Their main task is to carry out the terms of your estate plan and take care of all your affairs from start to finish. This can include collecting and distributing assets, taking care of court documents, taxes, closing accounts on your behalf, and the like. More than one person can be named an executor.

Guardianships: If you have children who are minors, dependents, or pets, you will want to include instructions as to who will care for them, as well as any financial arrangements that pertain to their care, education, and the like.

Asset Beneficiaries: You should already have your asset list from step 2. You will need to determine who will be the beneficiary of each item – family members, friends, charities.

Taxes: Consult with your CPA as to what tax strategies should be implemented to avoid a heavy estate tax burden.

Appoint a Power of Attorney: This pertains to listing one or two individuals who will make decisions on your behalf should something happen to you before you die. This would apply if you were deemed unfit to make important decisions on your own. You would appoint someone to make decisions for you medically, and another person for financial and legal situations, although they can be the same person.

Funeral Arrangements: Determine what your final wishes are as to your funeral arrangements so that your immediate family will know how to proceed following your passing.

Step 4: Use Appropriate Estate Planning Documents

Now that you have everything sorted out such as who will be appointed to certain roles, who will inherit your belongings, and so on, you would move forward on utilizing official estate planning documents to make everything legal and binding. Your lawyer should be able to provide you with all the necessary documents for you to fill out yourself, or you can have your attorney draft them up and complete them for you.

Here is just a sampling of common estate planning documents:

Will

A will is the most used estate planning tool. It typically provides the bulk of your plan. This document can include who will be receiving your assets, the executor you are appointing, it can name guardianships, and more. View this sample will to get a better understanding of how one is put together.

Trust

A trust can go hand in hand with a will. Its purpose is to spell out conditions on how specific assets should be handled, especially a piece of property. Regarding real estate, trusts can be used as a way to avoid probate. Probate can be required if a piece of property is passed on to someone, but the property is still titled to the individual who has passed away; it would then have to go into probate to legally transfer to the beneficiary. You can avoid probate if a living trust is put in place.

Take a moment to read this article by LegalZoom that explains probate and trusts. To get a more detailed explanation of what probate entails, you can read more on Wikipedia’s Probate page.

Letter of Intent

This letter has no legal standing and cannot supersede anything listed in a will. It’s simply an informal letter that can detail anything you would like it to. This might be a last message, or passwords to all your online accounts and a request to close them, funeral arrangement wishes, as well as a list of family and friends you would like to be notified when you pass.

It may also include the location of essential documents – birth certificates, tax returns, social security cards, and the like. It’s a great way to put your estate planning goals into plain English, as opposed to only having a will that details everything in legal terms.

Advanced Directives

This pertains to the Power of Attorney mentioned above. Advanced directives appoint someone to make medical, financial, or legal decisions for you in the event that you are unable to. This typically includes a Durable Power of Attorney, which pertains to financial and legal decisions, and a Medical or Healthcare Power of Attorney. You can view this page by Legal Templates to see both of these Power of Attorney documents.

Step 5: Store Documents & Inform Essential Parties

After you and your attorney complete all your estate planning documents and everything is finalized, it’s important to keep them in a safe place. It’s also essential to inform important parties of where your estate planning documents are kept. This can be a bank safe deposit box, a fireproof safe, as well as with your attorney. If you pass away and no one is able to locate your estate planning documents, things will proceed with the state as if you had no will or directives to begin with.

Going a Step Further to Provide for Those You Care For

There are a few extra steps you can take to ensure your dependents and loved ones are well taken care of – let’s take a look at them:

Taking Care of Those Dependent on You with a Life Insurance Policy

If you currently don’t have a life insurance policy, it may be time to obtain one, no matter what age you are. Those who should consider getting a life insurance policy are individuals who are married, have children, or have people who are financially dependent on them, such as a disabled person or aging parent. Depending on the amount of the policy, it can provide for the basics such as funeral costs or debts. Or, it might provide supplemental income for an extended period of time. If you’re going to look into obtaining a policy, we use and highly recommend Ladder Insurance.

Invest in Rental Real Estate to Build Wealth for Your Loved Ones

There is no better way to pass down wealth and ensure your loved ones are taken care of than investing in rental real estate. It will set up those you leave behind with a steady income stream by providing them with monthly cash flow. It’s considered passive income, so they won’t have to work for this money; a property manager will take care of everything for them. Your inheritor can just sit back and receive this money that will be provided for life. How does it work? You purchase a below-the-market-property that is then renovated and rented out to a tenant who pays monthly rent checks.

If this is all new to you, here are a few answers to the questions you may have:

1. Why should I invest in rental real estate when I already have an investment account (401k/IRA)?

Most retirement accounts are stock-based, and who is to say that the stock market won’t crash right before you pass away, leaving your loved ones with nothing. You may have already experienced the volatile market highs and lows, so you are well aware of this. Rental real estate is basically recession proof. Why? Because no matter how bad the economy is doing, your real estate investment will be untouched because everyone needs a place to live. You can read up on why real estate is the better investment choice by going to our latest article on the topic of Real Estate vs Stocks.

2. How can I buy a rental property if I don’t have the available funds to do so?

There are several options for generating the needed funds to invest in real estate. You can obtain the assistance of a company that deals in locating funds for investors; one such company is Fund & Grow. They provide unsecured business credit cards with 0% interest that can be used to invest in rental real estate. You can learn more about this company by reading our Fund & Grow review, or go straight to our personal Fund & Grow information page.

If you have a 401k or traditional IRA retirement account, you can easily use those funds to buy a property. Additionally, this will put your nest egg in a safe place, as opposed to leaving it in a risky account that’s subjected to the rise and fall of the economy. You would just need to find a financial advisor who can convert your 401k or IRA into a self directed IRA that allows for property purchases. If you’re interested, we have an informative article that you can read that’s dedicated to the topic of Self Directed IRAs.

You can also learn more about using a self directed IRA to build legacy wealth for you and your family by watching the following video:

 

3. I have zero experience in real estate investments – how do I begin?

For those who have no real estate investment experience, you can simply work with a full-service real estate company such as Morris Invest. They will take care of every detail for you – big and small. This includes finding a property, converting your 401k/IRA to a self directed IRA, doing the property renovations, placing a property manager for you, as well as finding you a reliable tenant.

They can easily set everything up and you will be cash flowing the very first month. This, in turn, will build wealth for you and set your beneficiaries up with a lifetime of monthly cash flow. Don’t hesitate to schedule a call with Morris Invest; we would love to help you own a lucrative property that will set your loved ones up for financial stability.

Listen to this exceptional podcast on the topic of estate planning and Legacy Wealth that touches on providing for your family. You can also view this article we created titled – Estate Planning for Real Estate Investors.

Gain Peace of Mind by Starting the Estate Planning Process Today

If you have loved ones you would like to be sure are taken care of after your death, or you would simply like to leave precious family heirlooms to family members, then putting together an estate plan will ensure your wishes are met. Without an estate plan, you would be leaving your belongings in the hands of the state, or anyone who has access to your assets. It’s easy to create a plan with the help of an experienced attorney/CPA. So, there really is no reason to put it off any longer. Start the process today so you and your loved ones can gain peace of mind.

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