Stunning as it sounds, nearly two-thirds of people in the U.S. have no estate plan of any kind. Countless more merely have a will, getting them only halfway to a complete plan…if that. Wills serve an essential purpose, yes; they instruct guardianship guidelines and they manage the transfer of assets and property. This is only a portion of what an up-to-date estate plan needs to do, however.
A will does not allow you to determine how your assets are spent after your death. For this, you need a trust or similar instrument. At most, a will allows you to express your wishes in non-binding terms. If you worry about how your heirs manage their money, this is not enough. A trust designed to control how beneficiaries may spend your assets is an essential complement to your will.
Life insurance is often another element in a complete estate plan. If you carry significant amounts of cash or wish to pass liquid assets on to heirs, life insurance may be the most tax-efficient vehicle.
Another important aspect of proper asset management is title review. Mistakes or improprieties in the titling or ownership of assets can make processing one’s estate a nightmare. Things you want to avoid include outright ownership instead of split ownership with a spouse, owning business assets personally, and owning assets that should be entitled to a trust. An experienced attorney can help you to determine which assets fit into each category.
Beneficiary designations are a final key consideration. These transfer ownership of 401(k) accounts, IRAs, and life insurance, and take precedence over a will or trust. Failing to keep beneficiary designations up-to-date can undermine your entire estate, and must be reviewed every time a major life event occurs. We—along with many oither estate planning attorneys— offer an annual maintenance plan designed to keep your estate plan current.
Digital Asset Management
An addendum to all of this is the need to review the changing landscape of digital asset management. It is critical that you and your estate planning attorney discuss updating your estate planning documents with language specific to managing digital assets. Under some state laws, failure to do so exposes your estate to losing all digital assets at the time of your passing.
If you have a will, you’re well on your way…but you’re not yet there. Long gone are the days when managing an estate was a simple affair. As technology accelerates and asset management becomes increasingly complex, proper management of an estate can only be achieved through careful planning in concert with professional assistance.