If you think it’s too early to start worrying about estate planning, think again, local financial advisors say. “It’s a very difficult subject, and I would say procrastination is the No. 1 problem with estate planning, because none of us like to visualize our own demise or incapacitation,” says Stephen Wedel, a certified financial planner and certified funds specialist at Four Seasons Wealth Management. But it’s still vitally important to plan for those possibilities, he says. “If something happened to me, and I’ve left no instructions to the court, what I’m really saying is that I just want a judge somewhere to make decisions for me. But that’s not really what most people would say, is it?”
Estate planning addresses not only a will, but also medical and non-medical powers of attorney, a living will, and a trust, Wedel says. “I would certainly coach anyone who is even in the earliest stages of their careers to establish the legal paperwork, so that in the unlikely event of their incapacitation, they have laid out who takes care of them and who takes care of their money.” He adds that there’s a growing urgency for married people, especially those with children. “It starts out with, It’s just about me, but then it’s about me and my family.”
One of the first steps involves deciding who gets the powers of attorney, says Janet Bandera, senior VP, national advisors trust: head of Moneta Trust Operations. For married couples, they will often fall upon the spouse, but “there’s no one-size-fits-all,” she says. “Some people struggle if they don’t have family members or friends they trust.” She says for those people, the financial responsibilities are often given to a trust company or a bank. If you do have family members to fill this role, Bandera says it’s important to choose someone who capably manages their own finances. “You don’t need to pick the lawyer in the family or the financial professional. You need to pick the person who has the time and the ability to manage that process.”
Even for those with a spouse, it’s necessary to choose a backup person to handle your affairs, Wedel says. For example, if you’re both incapacitated in the same car accident, you need someone else to fill the role. Wedel recommends separating the medical and nonmedical powers of attorney. “I commonly ask people, Who is the person in your life that you would consider a nurturing and caring person? And second, Who is the person that you think is the most educated and savvy when it pertains to finance? It could be the same person, but rarely is it.”
You also might want to consider creating a living will, Wedel says. This document gives medical instructions in the event of incapacitation. While this is a highly personal document, Wedel says, “My belief is if a client absolutely doesn’t want to be hooked up to a machine, why are you saddling the decision on your most loved family members who will carry that luggage forever, when you could create the legal paperwork to carry out a decision you’ve already made?”
Another important part of estate planning is a trust or will. One of the advantages of setting up a trust is that you’re able to avoid probate, the legal process of distributing assets, which can erode the estate through court costs and attorney fees. In Missouri, probate also can be avoided by putting beneficiary designations on various assets, such as bank or retirement accounts, a car or house, Bandera says. However, a trust has the advantage of putting one trustee in charge of all of these assets.
A trust also allows its creator to give instructions to others in the event of their death, Wedel says. “In a living trust, you can talk to people and say things to people,” he says. “If you want to, you can say to your children, I think it’s important that you go to college, and if your mother and I are killed in an automobile accident, we’re going to pay for your education out of this trust and give you a third of your bequest when you graduate from college. We’re going to reward you for graduating from college, and if you don’t, we’ll give that inheritance to you later.” He adds, “The trust is the only document that lets you disperse money over a period of time that can even be triggered by future events. That’s why it’s so powerful.” He recommends a trust to anyone who has children.
Bandera adds that charitable giving should be on the forefront of estate planning. “What’s important is that the most tax-wise efficient way to give a charitable gift at your death is from your retirement account, because that money is all pre-tax and charities don’t pay tax,” she says. “A dollar is a dollar to your family. But from the IRA, it’s 70 cents because they have to pay the income taxes on it.” Estate plans also can be set up to take advantage of any estate tax exemptions, Bandera says. Even though estate tax laws have been unpredictable in recent years, a good estate plan is flexible enough to adjust for most situations, she notes.
But when it comes to estate planning, the key is in getting started. “Most people think until they accumulate wealth, they don’t need an estate plan,” Bandera says. “But in the broader context, it’s about a will, but also about having powers of attorney for health care and financial reasons. It doesn’t matter how old you are, those powers of attorney are very important.”