Estate planning is the process of managing and preserving your assets while you are alive, and conserving and controlling their distribution after your death. There are four key estate planning documents almost everyone should have regardless of age, health, or wealth. They are: a durable power of attorney, advance medical directives, a will, and a letter of instruction.
Durable power of attorney
Incapacity can happen to anyone at any time, but your risk generally increases as you grow older. You have to consider what would happen if, for example, you were unable to make decisions or conduct your own affairs. Failing to plan may mean a court would have to appoint a guardian, and the guardian might make decisions that would be different from what you would have wanted.
A durable power of attorney (DPOA) enables you to authorize a family member or other trusted individual to make financial decisions or transact business on your behalf, even if you become incapacitated. The designated individual can do things like pay everyday expenses, collect benefits, watch over your investments, and file taxes.
There are two types of DPOAs: (1) an immediate DPOA, which is effective at once (this may be appropriate, for example, if you face a serious operation or illness), and (2) a springing DPOA, which is not effective unless you become incapacitated.
Advance medical directives
Advance medical directives let others know what forms of medical treatment you prefer and enable you to designate someone to make medical decisions for you in the event you can’t express your own wishes. If you don’t have an advance medical directive, health-care providers could use unwanted treatments and procedures to prolong your life at any cost.
There are three types of advance medical directives. Each state allows only a certain type (or types). You may find that one, two, or all three types are necessary to carry out all of your wishes for medical treatment.
- A living will is a document that specifies the types of medical treatment you would want, or not want, under particular circumstances. In most states, a living will takes effect only under certain circumstances, such as a terminal illness or injury. Generally, one can be used only to decline medical treatment that “serves only to postpone the moment of death.”
- A health-care proxy lets one or more family members or other trusted individuals make medical decisions for you. You decide how much power your representative will or won’t have.
- A do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order is a legal form, signed by both you and your doctor, that gives health-care professionals permission to carry out your wishes.
A will is quite often the cornerstone of an estate plan. It is a formal, legal document that directs how your property is to be distributed when you die. If you don’t leave a will, disbursements will be made according to state law, which might not be what you would want.
There are a couple of other important purposes for a will. It allows you to name an executor to carry out your wishes, as specified in the will, and a guardian for your minor children.
The will should be written, signed by you, and witnessed.
Most wills have to be probated. The will is filed with the probate court. The executor collects assets, pays debts and taxes owed, and distributes any remaining property to the rightful heirs. The rules vary from state to state, but in some states smaller estates are exempt from probate or qualify for an expedited process.
Letter of instruction
A letter of instruction is an informal, nonlegal document that generally accompanies your will and is used to express your personal thoughts and directions regarding what is in the will (or about other things, such as your burial wishes or where to locate other documents). This can be the most helpful document you leave for your family members and your executor.
Unlike your will, a letter of instruction remains private. Therefore, it is an opportunity to say the things you would rather not make public.
A letter of instruction is not a substitute for a will. Any directions you include in the letter are only suggestions and are not binding. The people to whom you address the letter may follow or disregard any instructions.
Take steps now
Life is unpredictable. So take steps now, while you can, to have the proper documents in place to ensure that your wishes are carried out.