Estate planning: Get ahead
link U.S. Air Force graphic: Senior Airman Alexxis Pons Abascal
27th Special Operations Wing Office of the Staff Judge Advocate
Nobody wants to think about their own death. Because of this, far too many people in America avoid thinking about the hard questions, like who gets which of their assets when the inevitable comes. This is a large part of the reason why over one-third of Americans die without a will in place. But the fact is that after you pass, your loved ones will have to address these same questions, and they will greatly appreciate knowing your wishes and desires when the time comes. By executing a will and a few other documents at the base legal office now, all for free, you can save your loved ones the expense and aggravation of settling your affairs after your death. We all hope to live a long life, but what if the inevitable comes tomorrow? To make this relatively painless, we’ll break it down into ten steps.
1. Understand why you need a will.
A will lets you tell the world whom you want to give your assets to. If you die without one — which is known as dying “intestate” — the state decides who gets what. The laws for this process vary by state, but if you die and leave a spouse and kids, your assets will generally be split between your surviving spouse and children. If you’re single with no children, then the state is likely to decide who among your blood relatives will inherit your estate. The default is often your biological parents in equal shares. For many, this is not what they would have wanted, but without a will, it is likely the outcome. Finally, making a will is especially important for people with young children because wills are the best way to nominate guardianship of minors. It is far better to have a plan in place for who will care for and raise your kids, your most valuable “asset,” than to hope that a probate judge down the road gets it right.
2. Take inventory and pick your team.
Start by creating a comprehensive list of your assets, including investments, retirement savings, insurance policies, real estate or business interests, and collectible and sentimental items. Locate the documents for these and review them. Many financial assets, like savings accounts and life insurance policies will have beneficiaries already named in their contracts or documents. One example is your Service members Group Life Insurance documents at the 27th Special Operations Force Support Squadron. If you recently divorced, for instance, do not forget to update these as well. In addition, take time to think about the following questions:
• Whom do you want to inherit your assets? If they die before you, then who is next?
• Whom do you want to name as guardians for your children in the event that you and their other parent dies?
• Whom do you want responsible for executing your will?
• Whom do you want handling your financial affairs if you’re ever incapacitated?
• Whom do you want making medical decisions for you if you become unable to make them yourself?
3. Naming an executor.
A will allows you to name your executor, who is the person who will be in charge of distributing your property, filing tax returns on behalf of your estate, and processing claims from creditors. Your executor can be anyone you name, but often it is a close friend or relative. More than anything, it should be someone you trust who can handle the responsibility in a timely and organized manner.
4. Naming a guardian.
If you have minor children, or adult children with disabilities, the most important part of your estate plan will be the appointment of guardian(s) in your will. A guardian is the person that will raise your children in the event that you and their other parent both die before they become an adult. We recommend that you appoint a primary guardian(s) and at least one level of alternate guardians. For instance, your primary could be your parents (if they are in better health and more financially stable) and the alternates could be the in-laws. The decision on guardian is often the decision that leads to the most disagreements between clients we see, so take the time to have the conversation.
5. Assign power of attorney.
No one is immune from aging or from a health crisis. Granting someone you trust the power of attorney allows that person — known as your “agent” or “attorney in fact” — to pay bills, manage investments, or make key financial decisions if you are unable to do so. Your agent is empowered to sign your name and is obligated to be your fiduciary — meaning they must act in your best financial interest at all times and in accordance with your wishes. There are different kinds of powers of attorney. Most people building an estate plan will want what’s often called a “springing” power of attorney, which only goes into effect under circumstances that you specify, the most typical being if you were to become incapacitated.
6. Create a living will.
A living will, also known as an advance medical directive) is a statement of your wishes for the kind of life-sustaining medical intervention you want, or don’t want, in the event that you become terminally ill and unable to communicate. Most states have statutes that define when a living will goes into effect and those statutes may restrict the medical interventions. Your condition and the terms of your directive also will be subject to interpretation. But a patient’s wishes are taken very seriously, so an advance medical directive is one of the best ways to have a say in your medical care in the event you can’t otherwise express yourself.
7. Assign healthcare power of attorney.
It is also recommended that you have a trusted health-care agent appointed in writing. You can do this by signing what’s known as a durable power of attorney for healthcare. Your health-care agent should be able to do three key things: understand important medical information regarding your treatment, handle the stress of making tough decisions, and keep your best interests and wishes in mind while making those decisions. So if you have a trusted family member that also works in the medical field, they may be perfect for this role.
8. Complete the will worksheet and then schedule an appointment.
At “aflegalassistance.law.af.mil” you will select the “Legal Worksheet” tab and this will allow you to complete a will worksheet before you come in for an appointment at the legal office. This worksheet will cover all the topics discussed above and will enable us to gather the information necessary for drafting your documents. Once you have completed the draft worksheet, record the ticket number and call our office at (575) 784-2211 to schedule an appointment. Once provided the ticket number, we can pre-draft your documents to save you time at your appointment. If you desire, your spouse can accompany you to complete both your documents.
9. Update your will.
Review your will about once every year. You will also want to update it after a major life change such a birth, death, or marriage, or if you buy some real estate or receive an inheritance. When you do this, also make sure your beneficiary designations on financial accounts, insurance policies and other assets are up-to-date and coordinated with your will.
10. Communicate with your heirs/guardians/executors.
Being named in a will in any capacity can be a heavy responsibility. Inheriting items can impact a person’s tax status and obligations. Being named as an executor is a responsibility that will take time and effort. And most importantly, being named as a guardian to another person’s children is a huge responsibility and expense. Be sure to discuss your plans and expectations with your family and friends before you go finalize your legal documents.
Most importantly, remember that the more time and effort you put into your estate plan now, and the sooner and more clearly you outline your intentions, the less chance there will be for disagreements when you are gone.