Where Do I Start with Estate Planning?

Written by Attorney Erin L. Nunes, Partner

I get it! No one wants to talk about Estate Planning. That’s the #1 reason why it doesn’t get done. The 2nd reason estate planning doesn’t happen is because no one knows where to start. Let me tell you that it actually isn’t as difficult as it appears. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney like myself and the team at Surprenant & Beneski can help simplify the process. We will guide you from beginning to end. We’ll help you understand the importance of having an estate plan while you are alive. We will also help you create a plan that protects your loved ones, as well as everything you have worked for during your life. Here’s where I need to mention that estate planning is not just for the wealthy or for people of a certain age. The reality is that illness, incapacity, and death do not discriminate or give us an opportunity to prepare for them. What we can do is prepare an estate plan that works in those instances to manage our healthcare, support our loved ones as they care for us or, potentially, continue life without us. Ready to get started? Here are some questions that you can ask yourself in order to begin the process of estate planning:

What real estate do I own?

When thinking about estate planning, we tend to think about things we own, the most obvious being a home. What about a vacation home? Rental properties? Other real estate?

People often consider transferring their real estate into a trust in order to avoid a costly and time-consuming probate court process after death.

How do I own that property? Does it matter?

Whether you have personal or commercial real estate property, there are different ways you may be owning it. Step back and think about it, are you the single owner of the property? Do you own it as joint tenants? All of these things come into play when wanting to plan what to do with your property, and it can impact how you handle it in your trust and estate planning process.   

What retirement accounts do I have?

If you have a retirement account with beneficiaries named, the account will avoid probate and automatically go to your beneficiaries. It’s always a good idea to double check your assigned beneficiaries. As life evolves, the people you want listed as a beneficiary may change and evolve as well.

What life insurance policies do I have?

Similar to your retirement accounts, your life insurance policies should also have beneficiaries so the policies will pass directly to those named beneficiaries when you pass.

Again, anytime you’re reviewing your estate plan, you should also make sure to look at who your beneficiaries are for accounts and policies that you own. Maybe your relationship with your children has changed, maybe you have a new wife/husband, etc.; don’t let your policies go to the wrong people. It’s always a good idea to update and check who your beneficiaries are – based on life changes.

What investment accounts do I have?

It’s not only important to think about what investment accounts you have, but also how they’re set-up. If you have an investment account, like an IRA, you most likely have already set a beneficiary up.

If you’re young and have no significant others/family etc. when you start investing, you may not have set any beneficiaries up. As your life changes, you might find yourself with a partner, some kids, and a whole new family to think about. If you never set up a beneficiary, make sure that you do!

However, not every investment account has beneficiaries. For example, if you own 2,000 shares of Google stock, that’s something you want to include in your estate plan to make sure it passes to the person or people you want if you were to pass.

Knowing what type of investment accounts you have, and how they are setup, is important when working on your estate plan. At Surprenant & Beneski, we make it a point to partner with other professionals that you work with, your CPA, your financial advisor, etc… This helps ensure that you have a comprehensive and cohesive plan.

If you have minor children, who do you want to raise them in the event of you/your partner’s death?

It’s something that no one ever wants to think about, the idea of someone other than you or your partner raising your children, but it’s one of the first things anyone should consider after having a child. Even before having children, if you’re thinking about having children, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with your partner about who you would want to raise your child. Prepare for the unexpected. Always.

Not knowing who you want to raise your child prior to death could mean custody battles, someone you don’t want raising your child, and a slew of other issues that may arise. Plan for your children’s future now, by knowing who you want to raise them in case of your untimely death. As hard as it may be, think long and hard about who you want to raise your children – think about religion, politics, social issues, hobbies, love, lifestyles etc.

Who do you want making medical decisions for you?

Do you have just one person you love that has different beliefs, ideologies, thoughts, religious views etc. from you? If you answered yes to just one of these, that’s the exact reason why it’s important to think about who you want to make medical decisions for you, and to create a plan for that now.

As much as your life is yours to live, you likely want the end of your life to be made with your choices, and so it’s essential that you think about who you want making medical decisions for you. Not just one person, but two. Medical decisions need an alternative in case your first choice isn’t available.  This is designated on a legal document called Healthcare Proxy.

Who do you want making legal decisions for you?

Life is full of the unexpected so you might anticipate that your partner would automatically default on taking care of these things, but your spouse does not automatically get to make decisions for you if you are incapacitated.  Think about who you want and TRUST to make legal decisions for you, if the time comes, and put a plan in place that gives them the powers they would need to take care of your legal and financial needs without unnecessary Court permissions and oversight.

Do you want to specifically disinherit anyone?

Do you have an estranged child? Estranged parent? Someone who would inherit things if you didn’t otherwise disinherit them? If the answer is yes, then you absolutely need to consider this person when creating an estate plan. Without estate plans, your estate and assets will need to go through probate, which could leave those decisions in the hands of the court.

Decide who you want to inherit what, while you’re alive, so that your loved ones and family don’t have to spend their time and energy on it after you’ve left them. Let them focus on things that matter – their grief for you, and their love for each other.

Who do you want to distribute your estate?

Who you want to be the Personal Representative (formerly known as executor of your estate)? The Personal Representative of your estate will help ensure that your wishes are followed. The Personal Representative does much more than distribute assets and your estate though, they’re responsible for paying off any debts or taxes that may still be owed. After that, they’re here to help ensure your estate gets distributed properly.

Hopefully these questions have helped you get to a starting point in your own estate planning process. Having an idea of who you want as your Personal Representative, who you want to be responsible for your children, who might handle your health decisions, these are all big choices that impact those you love.

Remember, nothing in your estate plan is permanent, relationships and life evolves, and so can your estate plan. The goal here is to plan for the unexpected, you never know what may happen. Let’s work together and create a plan!

Have questions? Need help creating an estate plan? Call me!

©Surprenant & Beneski, P.C. 35 Arnold Street, New Bedford, MA 02740, 336 South Street,   Hyannis MA 02601 and 45 Bristol Drive, Easton MA 02375.  This article is for illustration purposes only.  This handout does not constitute legal advice.  There is no attorney/client relationship created with Surprenant & Beneski, P.C. by this article.  DO NOT make decisions based upon information in this handout.  Every family is unique and legal advice can only be given after an individual consultation with an elder law attorney.  Any decisions made without proper legal advice may cause significant legal and financial problems.