When we are constructing financial plans for clients, we inevitably get to the estate planning portion of the plan, and ask them “Do you have updated wills, a health proxy, and a power of attorney in place?” The most common responses that we receive are:
- “I know we should have but we never did”
- “I did but it was over 10 years ago”
- “I have a will but not a health proxy or a power of attorney”
- “I have heard about trusts, should I have one?”
The Will, Health Proxy, and Power of Attorney are the three main estate documents that most people should have. In this article I will review:
- How Wills work and items that you should include in your Will
- Why you should have a Health Proxy and how they work
- Power of Attorney
- The probate process
- Considering a testamentary trust
- Assets that pass outside of the Will
- Revocable Trusts & Irrevocable Trusts
- Estate planning tips
- How much does it cost to establish a will, health proxy, and a power of attorney
Establishing A Will
The most basic estate document that most people are aware of is a written Will. The Will provides specific guidance as to who will receive your assets after you have passed away. The Will also establishes who would be the guardian of your minor children should you pass away prior to your children reaching the age of majority. Without a Will, state laws and the court system that know nothing about you, will decide who receives your assets and who will be the guardian of your minor children; not a situation that most people want.
The Will can be a very simple document. If you are married and have children, the Will may state that if you pass away everything goes to your spouse but if both you and your spouse were to pass away simultaneously, the assets go to the children. For individuals or married couples without children, or for married couples that have been divorced, it’s also critical to have a Will to provide direction as to what will happen to your assets if you were to pass away.
You can engage an estate attorney to complete a simple Will or if your Will is very simple and straightforward, you may elect to use a do-it-yourself option through a platform like Legal Zoom. We typically encourage clients to meet with an estate attorney because when it comes to estate planning many people don’t know what questions to ask to get the right documents and plan in place. If you are married with minor children, and you and your spouse were to pass away leaving all the assets to the kids, with a simple Will, they would have access to their full inheritance at age 18. An 18 year old having access to large sums of money may not be an optimal situation. In those cases, you may want to include a testamentary trust or revocable trust in your estate plan to put some restrictions in place as to how and when your children will have access to their inheritance.
I’m going pause here for a moment and explain what probate is and the probate process. When someone passes away, all of the assets included in their estate go through what’s called a “probate process”. The probate process is a legal process of accounting for all of your assets, debts, and transferring your assets to the beneficiaries of your estate. The person listed in your will as the “executor” is responsible for coordinating the probate process. Depending on the size of the estate, your executor will usually work with an attorney, an accountant, and possibly appraiser, to:
- Value the assets in your estate
- Work with the courts to process your estate
- Pay outstanding expenses or debts
- Coordinate the transfer of assets to your beneficiaries
Since the probate process is a legal process involving the courts, the process often takes longer than beneficiaries expect. Individuals will make the incorrect assumption that when you pass away, they just read the will, and your beneficiaries receive the assets within a few days or weeks; unfortunately that’s not that case. It’s not uncommon for the probate process to take 6 to 12 months and there are expenses involved with probating an estate. If it’s a complex estate, it could take over a year to complete the probate process.
For these reasons, it’s a common goal with estate planning to find ways to avoid the probate process and pass you assets directly to your beneficiaries. I will explain more about these strategies later on. But circling back to our discussion about the Will, if all you have is a Will, when you pass away, the assets in your estate will pass through this probate process.
There are a lot of different types of trusts within in estate planning world. One of the most basic and common trusts, especially for individuals with children under that age of 25, is a testamentary trust. A testamentary trust is a trust that is built into your will. With at testamentary trust, you are not establishing a trust today , but rather, if you pass away, a trust is established during the probate process and you can direct assets to the trust. Building a testamentary trust into your Will gives you some control over how the assets are distributed to the beneficiaries after you have passed away.
It’s common for individuals or married couples with children under that age of 25, to build these testamentary trusts into their Wills. I will illustrate how these trusts work in the example below.
Example: Jim and Sarah have two children, Rob age 14 and Wendy age 8. Between the value of their house, life insurance policies, and other assets, their estate would total $1.5M. Jim & Sarah realize that if something were to happen to them tomorrow, they would not want their kids to inherit $1.5M when they turn age 18 because they might not go to college, they may try to start a business that fails, buy a Corvette, etc. In their Will they establish a Testamentary Trust that states that if both parents pass away prior to the children turning age 25, all of their assets will flow into a trust, and that Sarah’s brother Harold will serve as the trustee. Harold as the trustee is able to distribute cash from the trust for living expenses, education, health expenses, and other expenses deemed necessary for the well being of the children. The children will receive 1/3 of their inheritance at age 25, 30, and 35.
You can design these testamentary trusts however you would like. In the Will you would designate who will be the trustee of your trust and the terms of the trust.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Testamentary trusts do not avoid probate like other trusts do. The trust is established as part of the probate process.
Revocable Trusts & Irrevocable Trusts
It’s also common for individuals and married couples to consider establishing either a Revocable Trust or Irrevocable Trust as part of their estate planning. These are separate from Testamentary Trusts. Revocable Trusts and Irrevocable Trusts are being established today and assets owned by the trust pass in accordance with the terms set forth in the trust document. There are material differences between these two types of trusts but some primary reasons why people establish these types of trust are to:
- Avoid probate
- Protecting assets from a long term event
- Control how and when assets are distributed beyond the date of death
- Reducing the size of the estate
- Advanced tax strategies
Assets That Pass Outside of The Will
There are certain assets that pass outside of the Will. Many of these “other assets” pass by “contract”, meaning there are beneficiaries designated on those accounts. A common example of assets that pass by contract are 401(k) accounts, IRA’s, annuities, and life insurance. When you set up those accounts you typically designate beneficiaries for each account and your Will could say something completely different. The assets that pass by contract do not have to go through the probate process unless the beneficiary listed on the account is your estate which is usually not an advantageous election for most individuals.
Transfer On Death Accounts (TOD)
One of the estate planning strategies that we use with clients is instead of holding an individual investment account in the name of the individual, we will register the account as a “transfer on death” (TOD) account. If you have an individual brokerage account and you pass away, the value of that account will have to go through probate. By simply adding the TOD feature to an existing individual brokerage account which lists beneficiaries similar to a 401(K) or IRA account, that account now avoids probate, and passes by contract directly to the beneficiaries.
Depending on the assets that make up your estate, you may be able to setup TOD accounts as opposed to going through the process of setting up trusts but it varies from person to person.
Power of Attorney
Let’s shift gears now over to the Power of Attorney document. A Power of Attorney document is important because it allows someone to step into your shoes and handle your financial affairs, should you become incapacitated. Some common examples are:
Example 1: If you’re in a car accident and end up in a coma, for accounts that are held only in your name, such as a checking account, investment account, or credit card, they will only speak to you. Being married does not give your spouse access financially to those accounts while you are still alive but your spouse may need access to them to continue to pay your bills or get access to cash to pay expenses while you’re incapacitated. Having a power of attorney document would allow your spouse or trusted individual named as your “agent” to act financially on your behalf.
Example 2: Having a power of attorney in place is key for Long Term Care events. If you have a spouse or parent and they have a stroke, develop dementia, or another health event that renders them unable to handle their personal finances, you could step in as their agent and handle their personal finances. In long term care situations that can often mean paying a nursing home, applying for Medicaid, paying medical bills, or shifting the ownership of assets to protect from a Medicaid spend down.
The Power of Attorney can also be built so your agent is not given that power today but rather it would only be given if a triggering event happened sometime in the future. With this document you really have to name someone you 100% trust. As financial planners, we have seen cases where there is abuse of the Power of Attorney powers and it’s never pretty. It’s not uncommon for a power of attorney to allow the agent to make gifts as a planning tool, but that might also include gifts to themselves, so you have to fully trust your agent and the powers that you provide to them.
The health proxy is usually the least fun estate document to complete but is equally important. In this document you are naming the individual that has the right to make your health decisions for you if you are incapacitated. This document spells out what you want and don’t want to have happen if certain health events occur. While it’s not uncommon for individuals to be a little uncomfortable completing this document due to the nature of the questions, it’s a lot better to complete it now, versus your family members trying to determine what your wishes would be when a severe health event has already occurred.
The health proxy will list items like:
- Would you be willing to be put on life support?
- If you could not eat, would you allow them to use a feeding tub
- Resuscitation preferences
- Willingness to accept blood transfusions
Again, not fun things to think about but by you making these decisions while you are of sound body and mind, it takes away the difficult situation where your family members have to decide in the heat of the moment what you would have wanted. That situation can sometimes tear families apart.
Keep Your Estate Plan Up To Date
All too often, we run into this situation where a client will acknowledge that they have estate documents, but they were established 20 years ago, and they never made any changes. It makes sense to meet with your estate attorney and revisit your estate plan:
- Every five years
- If you move to a different state
- When Congress makes major changes to the estate tax rules
The estate laws vary state by state. If we have clients that are planning to move and they plan to change their state of domicile to another state, we will often encourage them to meet with an estate attorney within that state once the move is complete. Congress has also made a number of changes to the federal estate tax laws over the past few years, with potentially more in the works, and not revisiting the estate plan could end up costing your beneficiaries tens of thousands of dollars in estate taxes that could have been avoided with some advanced planning.
Cost of Estate Documents
The cost of establishing a Will, Health Proxy, Power of Attorney, and Trusts, often varies based on the complexity of your estate plan. A simple Will may cost less than $1,000 to establish through an estate attorney. Establishing all three documents: Will, Health Proxy, and Power of Attorney may cost somewhere between $1,000 – $3,000. While it’s not uncommon for individuals to be surprised by the cost of setting up these estate documents, I always urge people to think about the cost of not having those documents in place. The probate process with professionals involved could cost thousands of dollar, your beneficiaries could lose thousands of dollars in taxes that could have been avoided, not to mention the emotional toll on your family trying to figure out what you would have wanted without clear guidance from your estate documents.
Hi, I’m Michael Ruger. I’m the managing partner of Greenbush Financial Group and the creator of the nationally recognized Money Smart Board blog . I created the blog because there are a lot of events in life that require important financial decisions. The goal is to help our readers avoid big financial missteps, discover financial solutions that they were not aware of, and to optimize their financial future.