When I sit down with clients, there’s a varying level of knowledge about estate planning, the different documents, and just what everything means. As such, my job is often to make sure people know how the law works and what happens in different situations so my clients can make the best decisions themselves with advice from me where they want it. So, for this month, I thought I’d start with the basics:
- What is probate?
- What is a will?
- What is a trust?
- What is a power of attorney?
- What is an advance health care directive?
Probate is the court process a person’s property goes through when they die to transfer the property out of the deceased’s name. Wills must go through probate (though it took Esq. behind my name for my mother to believe me on that). You can avoid through non-probate transfers, such as transfer-on-death (“TOD”s), payable-on-death (“POD”s), trusts, joint titling, and other methods. Probate is time consuming and can be very expensive. Because of this many people specifically form an estate plan to avoid probate. If you’re worried about your beneficiaries being unable to access quickly or wasting resources on court, talk to an attorney. There are many methods to avoid probate and not all are appropriate for everyone.
Trusts, however, are the main way to avoid probate. A properly funded trust effectively re-titles property from a person’s name to the trust. The person then decides who benefits from the trust assets and who controls those assets until they pass or are no longer competent to make decisions. Generally, the person setting up the trust may benefit and control the assets. This allows a person who becomes incapacitated to continue to benefit from their property, but gives a different, competent person the ability to make decisions regarding that property.
It’s very important to note the “properly funded” part. If property is not actually transferred to a trust (normally by renaming the asset in the name of the trust), then the property cannot be transferred through the trust documents and must still go through probate and a will or state inheritance law.
So, every estate plan (whether a trust is involved or not) should include a will. Wills set out a person’s wishes upon their death for guardianship of minor children and any property not transferred through non-probate transfers. This means that anything with a beneficiary (i.e. life insurance, retirement plans), TOD, POD, jointly titled, etc. are not given away according to the will.
Along the same lines, every estate plan needs a Power of Attorney. Powers of Attorneys come in many different types, but generally should cover legal, financial, and medical decisions. The document gives another person the power to make decisions for the person. The types of decisions can be limited and the document can be drafted so it only goes into effect when a person becomes incompetent.
Finally, a Health Care Directive establishes a person’s desires regarding specific medical situations. It covers circumstances where a person is unable to make decisions regarding their wishes, but can be used outside of terminal conditions (unlike a Living Will).
A full estate plan covers all of these areas and uses each document to make sure you are completely protected. Hopefully, this has explained the basics for you, but please if you have any questions email me or contact me here.