For centuries, it has been said that nothing is certain in life but death and taxes. While it’s true that none of us will escape death, how our assets are taxed after we’re gone is far from set in stone. Estate taxes depend not only on tax laws in effect at the time of your death, but also on the planning steps you took during your lifetime.
For the sake of your loved ones and your legacy, it pays to invest the time to understand the fundamentals of estate planning. The following are just some of the most commonly asked questions about estate planning.
What’s the difference between a will and an estate plan?
Great question! A will is a legal document, typically drafted by an attorney, that discusses how you want your assets distributed after your death. Your will should also identify an executor (i.e., the person who will carry out the provisions of your will) and the guardian of your children, pets, or other individuals under your care.
An estate plan is a collection of documents that will influence your physical and financial well-being both while you’re living and after you’ve passed on. A will is one small part of a comprehensive estate plan. An estate plan typically also includes advance healthcare directives, trusts, powers of attorney, beneficiary designations for your investments, and other documents.
And an estate plan is more than just a collection of the documents it comprises. The term “estate plan” can also refer to strategies you and your advisors use to manage and protect your wealth.
What is my “estate”?
Your estate includes all the assets of value you own at your death. This may include:
- Your home(s)
- Rental real estate
- Personal belongings (jewelry, automobiles, furniture, artwork, heirlooms, etc.)
- Bank accounts
- Retirement accounts
- Stocks and other securities
- Business interests
- Annuities or life insurance policies and death benefits
- Digital or virtual assets
- Claims pending and tax refunds
Your estate also includes all your debts and liabilities at the time of your death.
I’m not rich enough for an estate plan, right?
Not true! Everybody can benefit from having an estate plan. Estate plans don’t have to include complex trusts or deed transfers. They can also help you:
- Identify caregivers for your children
- Ensure that your assets get through probate quickly or avoid probate altogether
- Plan for unexpected events while you’re still living, like a medical incapacitation or disability
- Establish directives, like powers of attorney, medical directives, and living wills
- Retain digital privacy after your death
- Ensure that your spouse or children aren’t left with bills they can’t afford to pay
- Identify who receives your assets and when
Aren’t I too young for an estate plan?
Once you reach adulthood, it’s wise to start thinking about your estate plan. Retirement accounts are one aspect of your estate plan that you should have established in your early 20s. If you have children or family members (including pets!) you support financially, you have yet another reason to think about your financial future at a young age. Life insurance is never more affordable than when you are young, and can provide a meaningful asset to families when a parent passes away unexpectedly.
As you get older and your wealth increases, you can add more complexity to your estate plan as needed (e.g., establish a trust, start a 529 plan, diversify your retirement investments), but it’s easiest if you’ve already established the basics.
When is the best time to update my estate plan?
Today! If you haven’t already established an estate plan, now is the time to do it. Getting started doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are a few things you can do on your own, even before contacting an estate planner:
- Make a list of your assets, including digital assets.
- Make sure your beneficiaries (and secondary beneficiaries) are updated on retirement accounts and life insurance policies.
- Update your will.
- Name a guardian for your children and pets.
- Look into the cost of life insurance.
- Make sure your family understands your funeral preferences.
- Keep important documents in a safe place, like a safe deposit box at a bank, and ensure your family knows how to access it.
Where is the best place to start with estate planning?
Before you can build an estate plan, you must define your goals. What do you want to do with the wealth you have while you’re living, and what do you want to happen to it after your death? Common estate planning goals are to:
- Provide for yourself in retirement
- Provide for children or grandchildren
- Avoid probate
- Minimize taxes
- Support a charitable organization
- Protect your assets
- Ensure a safe transfer of assets
No goal is better than another, and you may have more than one. But if you’re clear about what’s most important, your estate planner can help you establish a plan that accomplishes those goals.
I’ve heard the term “digital assets.” What are they, and how do they factor into my estate plan?
Digital assets are a relatively new item to include in estate plans. Digital assets can include monetary assets like virtual currencies or nonfungible tokens, but they can also include things that are only valuable to you, like your emails, photos, blogs, social media accounts, domain names, online game personalities, etc. You can protect these assets by including them in your will. In fact, you can even name a third-party digital executor who can be responsible for deleting or archiving sensitive information you don’t want your family members to access.
What do these trust terms mean?
Trusts are common estate planning tools, and it’s important to familiarize yourself with common trust terms. We go into more detail about specific types of trusts here.
A grantor is an individual who contributes property to a trust.
Grantor trust vs. non-grantor trust
In a grantor trust, the grantor keeps control over the trust’s income and assets. Because the grantor can control trust assets, trust earnings are taxable to the grantor. In a non-grantor trust, the donor relinquishes control of trust assets. In this case, the trust is responsible for income tax return compliance. Depending on circumstances, either the trust or the beneficiary who received income from the trust will be responsible for paying tax on investment earnings.
Revocable trust vs. irrevocable trust
A revocable trust can be terminated or changed by the donor during their lifetime. Irrevocable trusts cannot be terminated, and only in certain circumstances can terms of the trust be changed. Grantor and non-grantor trusts can be either revocable or irrevocable.
Also known as an inter vivos trust, a living trust holds an individual’s assets for their benefit during their lifetime. At their death, their beneficiaries are gifted the remainder. Living trusts are grantor trusts, but they can be revocable or irrevocable.
A trustee is a person with a legal obligation to administer the trust in accordance with the trust document. They have a fiduciary responsibility to the grantor, and to all beneficiaries, to make decisions that follow the provisions outlined in the trust and are in accordance with their state laws.
A fiduciary is someone who is legally and ethically bound to make decisions solely in the best interests of another person (or persons). Trustees are fiduciaries of the trust and must act in the best interests of the trust beneficiaries.
Trust beneficiaries are the individuals (or organizations) that benefit from trust assets or income.
Who should I contact if I want to start estate planning?
Estate plans can be built by a number of professionals. Typically, an attorney experienced in estate law and a CPA are the two professionals you should contact, but financial planners can also be helpful when planning for your financial future. Together, these professionals can work with you to craft a plan, draft the necessary documents, and guide you throughout the process to ensure that your estate and wealth transfer goals are met.
If you’re looking to get started on your estate plan today, reach out to us at CRI. We can help you build the team of professionals who can support you.
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