Estate Planning Basics

Written by Canty Financial - Published on February 15, 2022

Estate planning is the process of ensuring that your assets are properly distributed to your heirs upon your death and designating who will handle your affairs should you become incapacitated. Estate planning is important for all of us, not just the ultra-wealthy. Here are some estate planning basics to consider. 

Take inventory of your assets 

The first step in the process is to take inventory of what you own. This includes everything from bank accounts to your home to investment and retirement accounts. It also includes non-financial assets such as art, collectibles and an array of other things. For business owners, this often represents a major component of their wealth. 

Part of this process is to determine who should receive these various assets in the event of your death. If you are married, in many cases this will be your spouse. There may be assets that you would like to go to other heirs as well. 

Another important part of this process is to review how each of these assets will pass to your heirs. This may include beneficiary designations, joint ownership or another method. It’s important to be sure that things are set up for each type of asset to correctly go to the people you desire. 

What would happen if you died today? 

One of the things we do with many of our clients is an “estate planning fire drill.” In other words, we help them look at what would happen to their various assets were they to die now. In some cases the results are eye-opening and not consistent with our client’s wishes. This is a good motivator to update their estate planning to reflect their current desires.

Having a Will 

A will is the core estate planning document for most people. A will is a legal document that spells out your wishes for the distribution of your assets and property upon your death. It can also spell out your wishes regarding the care of any minor children. If you die with a will your estate may still be subject to probate, which can be an expensive and time consuming process. Assets that pass outside of a will do not have to go through the probate process.

In the case of minor children, if you don’t designate a guardian, the court might do it for you and they may end up with someone who you would not have approved of. 

Beneficiary designations 

Some assets are passed to heirs via beneficiary designation, these override anything that might be contained in a will regarding these items. Beneficiary designations are often referred to as will substitutes. Retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s, the death benefit on a life insurance policy and annuities are prominent examples of assets where proper and up-to-date beneficiary designations are required. 

As an example, if you are divorced and remarried and your intent is for the death benefit on your life insurance policy to go to your current spouse, you will need to change the beneficiary designation to reflect this. 

Besides a primary beneficiary, don’t ignore secondary beneficiaries. These designations determine who receives the account or death benefit in the event the primary beneficiary were to die prior to your death. 

Ownership 

The ownership of some types of assets is important for estate planning purposes. A house that is jointly owned with your spouse or another family member will generally avoid probate. Likewise with investment and bank accounts that are properly titled. 

Life insurance 

Life insurance can be a key component in the estate planning process. Life insurance can be used to build an estate and to ensure that your heirs receive the amount of the death benefit. Life insurance can be useful in funding a buy-sell arrangement for business owners. 

Life insurance death benefits pass directly to the policy beneficiaries and are not subject to probate. Life insurance can be used to pay estate taxes that might be due either at the federal or state level. Life insurance can also be used to equalize the inheritance levels among various heirs. If certain assets are left to particular heirs, the life insurance benefit can be used to equalize the amount of the inheritance among your other heirs. 

Trusts 

There are various types of trusts available and the right type of trust can be useful in estate planning. 

One commonly used trust is a living trust. Under this arrangement, the trust is created, and your assets are retitled to the living trust. This might include investment accounts, bank accounts, real estate and other assets. The assets in the trust are used for your benefit while you are alive. Upon your death, the assets pass to the beneficiaries of the trust. Some benefits of a living trust include: 

  • It avoids probate upon your death.
  • The living trust provides a level of privacy.
  • If you become incapacitated, a trustee can step in and administer the trust on your behalf. 
  • If the trust includes a durable power of attorney for healthcare, this can avoid court procedures that might normally be needed to designate someone to handle your affairs and to make healthcare decisions for you.

There are numerous trusts that can be used to handle various estate planning situations. We generally work with our clients to help determine if a particular type of trust is warranted and then work with their estate planning attorney to get the trust established and funded. 

Living will 

A living will is a document that is sometimes referred to as an advance healthcare directive. It provides direction regarding your wishes as to certain healthcare decisions if you are unable to provide direction yourself. It will spell out things such as whether or not you want doctors to take extraordinary measures to keep you alive under certain conditions. 

A healthcare power of attorney is another type of advanced directive that designates someone to make these decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so. 

Having an appropriate advanced directive for your healthcare in place can save your family a lot of grief and can help preserve your estate based on your wishes. 

Summary 

You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets and to build an estate. You want your assets to go to the people or organizations that you choose. Proper estate planning can help ensure that the heirs of your choosing benefit from your hard work and success upon your death.

If you are looking for a fee-only fiduciary financial advisor who will always put your interests first, please give us a call to discuss your estate planning or any other financial issues. We are here to help.

Please call us at 518-885-3230 or 239-435-0090 or email [email protected] to let us know if you have questions. 

Bill Canty, CFP®, CPA

Ed Canty, CFP®

Maureen Walsh, EA, Investment Advisor Rep.

Joe Canty, Investment Advisor Rep.

Tina Alteri, CPA, Tax Advisor

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