Many people are currently in the process of organizing their financial information in preparation for the completion of their yearly income tax returns. If you have kept your records in a scatteredand unorganized fashion all year,this can be a daunting task however, if you have kept yourfinancial information neat and organized, this task is fairly easy to accomplish. The same concept applies to your estate plan. If your estate plan is organized, your affairs can be handled efficiently and effectively should you become incapacitated or pass away. Conversely, if your affairs have not been organized, your family members will shoulder that responsibility should you become incapacitated or pass away.
First and foremost, it is important to have an estate plan consisting, at a minimum, of a Will, Health Care Proxy and Durable Power of Attorney. In addition, if you are a home owner, you should also have a Homestead Declaration, which can protect the equity in your property. A more sophisticated plan, involving one or more Trusts, may be in order if circumstances warrant having a Trust, such as having property in more than one state or having beneficiaries who cannot receive an inheritance outright.
By making a Will, you express your wishes as to how your estate should be distributed. In addition, you name your Personal Representative, who will be responsible for carrying out your estate. This often eliminates fighting among family members as they are inclined to honor your wishes. A properly drafted Will also saves time and money during the probate process - if probate is necessary. When working with an estate planning attorney to make a Will, you can also address how to make your assets non-probate, which would allow family members to avoid the Court entirely upon your passing.
A Health Care Proxy is a document in which you designate someone to make your health care decisions if you are unable to make them for yourself. Similarly, a Durable Power of Attorney names someone to make your financial decisions if you are unable to make them for yourself. Having a Health Care Proxy and Durable Power of Attorney in place means that, in the event of your incapacity, yourfamily members will not have to petition the Court to obtain these same powers. By avoiding the Court process, your family members will save time, money and also your privacy.
Simply establishing a plan is not enough. It is important that the persons named in key roles in your documents know that these documents exist and also where to find them in the event of your incapacity or death. Many times, people safeguard their documents by putting them in a secure placefor safekeeping. The difficulty arises when they have lost capacity or passed away and cannot tell anyone where they put them. If your documents cannot be found when they are needed, they might as well not exist.
Similarly, if someone is to make health care decisions for you, it is important that they know your wishes. Often times, Living Will language is placed into a HealthCare Proxy in order to inform the person named to act for you as to your end of life decisions; however, other more basic care questions should be addressed in a conversation with the person named.
It is also crucial to organize all of your financial information – account statements, life insurance policies, deeds, titles, etc. – to ensure that should someone have to take over your financial affairs, they will not have to spend a great deal of time just to determine what you own. When someone needs to make financial decisions for you, the transition will be much smoother if your documentation is neatly organized and easily accessible to the person you have named. If the thought of organizing all of your information is overwhelming, you should consider hiring a professional for this purpose. Most elder law attorneys can recommend quality individuals who can assist you with organizing everything from daily mail to mountains of accumulated paperwork.
Organizing your estate plan can be one of the most important things that you do to take care of your family as it will allow them to avoid expensive and painful legal hassles. Will your legacy be that of a disastrous mess or a neatly crafted system? Take the steps now that are necessary to establish an organized estate plan, and give the gift of organization.
About Gina Barry, Featured Attorney, Springfield, Massachusetts
Gina M. Barry is a Partner with the law firm of Bacon Wilson, P.C., Attorneys at Law. She concentrates her practice in the areas of Estate and Asset Protection Planning, Probate Administration and Litigation, Guardianships, Conservator-ships and Residential Real Estate. Gina may be reached at (413) 781-0560.