Estate Planning Involves Far More Than A Will
If your estate plan hasn't been adjusted to account for the upcoming massive tax increases, you really don't have a worthwhile plan. The tax cuts that have protected smaller estates for nearly a decade expired this year, unless Congress takes action to extend them. Don't count on it.
THE BASIC IDEA OF ESTATE PLANNING
The basic idea of 'estate planning' is what used to be called "putting your affairs in order". First, you take a look at your assets and liabilities and put them into the category where they belong. Then you consider various scenarios for the years ahead, try to estimate what they might cost and how you'll pay for them. Finally, you make adjustments where needed and continue your life. Hopefully the plan works out, you have plenty left at the end and everyone remembers you fondly.
The fundamental purpose of estate planning is to convey as much of your estate as possible to whomever you want it to go to, as quickly as possible, with as little tax as possible. The more immediate purpose is to provide direction for your (or your spouse's) care in the event of incapacity.
The fundamental documents of estate planning are a will, health care proxy, power of attorney and, depending on the size of the estate, some type of trust, commonly used to protect the primary residence from being eaten up by end of life medical expenses.
DO YOU NEED TO HIRE A PROFESSIONAL?
Each one of these documents can be prepared using 'lawyer in a box' software programs or on-line (at a site like www.legalzoom.com). Keep in mind that while software and web sites can produce valid, legal documents, they cannot offer the benefits of experience you get when using the services of a qualified professional.
Estate planning is done by attorneys, CPA's and certified financial planners, among others, although the documents are normally produced by an attorney. Elder law attorneys often offer estate planning as a part of their practice.
The true value of of the professional estate planner is not the documents. It is a continuing relationship where they recognize that changes in law, taxation, regulation or legal verdicts mean your plans need to be changed. Your professional estate planner should understand the purpose and application of your documents and may even be involved with their execution.
THE LIMITATIONS OF ESTATE PLANNING
Estate planning, even by the most experienced professional, consists of a series of educated and informed guesses about what the future will hold. Sometimes the plan works out just fine, but life has a funny way of throwing curves balls. Any plan must continually be re-evaluated to consider 'circumstances on the ground.'
Additionally, wills are now routinely violated by judges, and health care proxies, advanced directives and living wills are often outdated or buried in a drawer at home, of no use to frantic relatives or doctors, nurses and paramedics who have to make instantaneous decisions in an emergency.
The breaking of a will by a judge doesn't bother the decedent, and the descendants will have a while to fight it out. The health care proxy is another matter - not knowing or ignoring your stated desires or those of your designated representative, can kill you or worse. Your health care proxy needs to understand they are your representative and advocate, they fight for you, and they are fighting for your life.