Estate planning is concerned with the use, conservation and disposition of a person’s property and wealth at their death.
This involves two basic principles:
- Minimizing the gift or estate tax consequences that occur when a person’s property is passed to another either during life or at death; and
- Provisions for taking care of the decedent’s surviving spouse and family.
Both principles can be very complex and interconnected. If you do not set out your wishes beforehand, your individual state law would govern and the results can be detrimental to your spouse and family.
Wills and trusts are the primary vehicles that lawyers use to assist clients in meeting their estate planning goals. A will is a written document that takes effect at the death of the person signing it (the “testator”). A will covers all property owned by the testator at death and the court process of administering a will is called probate. A trust is defined as an intentionally created fiduciary relationship with regard to property in which the legal title is in the trustee, but the benefit of ownership is another person, the beneficiary. There are many types of trusts, but probably the most popular is a living trust (sometimes called an “inter-vivos” trust). It is a document that is revocable at any time by the person signing it (often referred to as the “grantor” or “settlor”), but becomes irrevocable at the death of the grantor. Living trusts are often used because it can eliminate the probate process.
Other basic estate planning documents include: a living will, a durable power of attorney for health care, and a durable power of attorney for personal affairs. A living will sets out a client’s wishes about the medical care desired if they are in a permanent vegetative or incapacitated state. Durable power of attorneys appoint a client’s agent to act on their behalf for medical and personal affairs if they are incapacitated.
A prudent estate planner will address the totality of the client’s long-term goals and needs and will seek input from the client’s other trusted advisors such as accountants, financial planners, life insurance representatives, stock brokers, etc.