1. Estate planning is not just for the wealthy. It is just as important for lower income adults to make plans for their estate as it is for the wealthy. When there is no plan in place for someone of lesser means, their loved ones can often burn through funds unnecessarily, trying to figure out how to manage the estate. They may try to avoid additional costs and attempt to settle the estate without professional aid, potentially missing out on assets because they do not know how to access them. If you are 18 years or older and of sound mind, you should have some basic estate plans in place.
2. Estate planning goals. Take the time to write down what your main reasons for estate planning are. Every individual or family will approach this planning process from a different perspective, it will be important for you to communicate your specific priorities when you meet with a comprehensive estate plan lawyer. Some common goals include,
- giving your loved ones peace of mind, leaving them with a clear plan for your estate;
- protecting minor children in the event of the loss of both parents;
- providing financial stability to surviving family members;
- being in control of asset distribution after death;
- protecting wealth, such as family business, after death;
- reducing the estate tax liability on larger estates; and
- providing additional resources for a loved one with disabilities.
A skilled estate attorney will value your goals and provide guidance with them in mind.
3. Your possessions. Don’t leave your loved ones searching for clues of your assets; create a complete list. Assets for estate planning purposes may include,
- owned real estate;
- owned vehicles;
- investment accounts;
- life insurance policies;
- personal property, such as jewelry, art, tools, etc.; or
- ownership interests in a business.
At the same time you are creating this list, make note of any joint ownership or designated beneficiaries of your accounts.
4. Your debts. Just as you don’t want to leave your loved ones searching for clues of assets, you also want them to have a clear picture of the debts you owe. As part of your estate administration your debts will need to be settled, oftentimes before most inheritance can be distributed. Debts may include,
- home equity loans,
- credit cards,
- car loans,
- personal loans, or
- student loans.
If you have a co-signer for any of these debts, make note of this too. In most cases they will be responsible for the debt after you’re gone.
If you do not have a co-signer, many loans and lines of credit are unsecured debt. Meaning, if the estate does not have the funds to pay, then the lenders will have to discharge the debts. Most unsecured debt cannot be passed down to surviving relatives.
5. Who you want to provide for. If you pass away without a comprehensive estate plan, then your assets will be divided amongst your family, as prescribed by law. In Ohio, that inheritance favors a living spouse and children. If you have not been survived by a spouse or children then your assets go to your parents, then siblings, then extended family, in that order. The state will divide your assets equally amongst your heirs as dictated by law. If you wish to provide for or protect loved ones outside of this succession, they must be included in your estate plan.
6. Responsible people you can trust. Prior to meeting with an estate planning attorney, you should have a sense of the trustworthy parties in your life that will carry out your wishes when you are unable. You will need to assign an estate administrator or executor who will oversee the management of your estate; after death this is often executed with the guidance of an estate planning and probate lawyer.
If you have minor children or other dependents that rely on you for their care, you will need to assign a guardian. Beyond just planning on who will care for them, you should think of how they will be cared for. Your estate planning attorney can help you evaluate the legal tools available to provide for your children and to distribute your assets over time to help with their care.
7. How you want to live. Estate planning is not just planning for your death, but also what happens before death. If you have a chronic illness or suffer a serious accident, what would you want your final days to look like? What do you need to communicate with your loved ones to make sure your wishes are followed? Your estate planning attorney will help you navigate what legal tools are at your disposal to ensure your end-of-life requests are communicated.