Although COVID-19 related restrictions are beginning to ease, the pandemic has already been very disruptive in terms of employment, social isolation, and generalized anxiety—particularly for people in “high risk” categories due to age or pre-existing conditions.
Nobody likes to consider the possibility that they could fall ill or become incapacitated, yet the current health crisis is putting these concerns into sharp relief. One way to mitigate this anxiety is to have a well-considered estate plan in place beforehand, just in case it is needed.
Estate planning can be extraordinarily complex, and you should consult a competent estate attorney. Here are 4 common components to familiarize yourself with:
1. Your Will
A last will and testament is a legal document that allows you to direct distributions of your property at the time of your death. A will also allows you to appoint an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. This person will attend to your affairs after you pass, probate your will if necessary and file income and estate tax returns on your behalf. If you have children who are minors, you should also name a guardian for them in the will. In the absence of a will, property is distributed in accordance with default laws of inheritance, which vary by state (and may not reflect your preferences).
2. Durable Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy
A durable power of attorney grants authority to carry on a person’s financial affairs and protect their property by acting on their behalf. This includes the ability to write checks, pay bills, make deposits, purchase or sell assets or sign any tax returns.
Similarly, a health care power of attorney grants the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf should you become incompetent or incapacitated. Needless to say, these are both positions of great responsibility and you should regularly re-evaluate whether the person(s) you have appointed to these roles remain reliable and trustworthy.
3. Living Trust
A living trust is commonly used to cover estate-planning concerns which cannot be easily addressed in a will, such as providing for ongoing financial support of minor children. A trust is often the most expedient method of settling an estate, as it bypasses the slow and costly probate process. Moreover, since probate is a public process, a trust can better protect privacy regarding details of an estate.
Outside of a trust, certain assets can still bypass probate if there is a named beneficiary. Examples include life insurance policies and retirement accounts, as well an individual account designated “Transfer on Death (TOD).” Keep in mind that if you have a joint asset such as a bank account, that will pass to the surviving joint owner. It is a good idea to regularly review your named beneficiaries, to ensure they reflect your most current wishes.
Making Changes During a Pandemic
Due to stay-at-home orders and social distancing practices, it may be more difficult to meet with your attorney or notary in-person to prepare or update your documents. Some states have suspended various statutes to let people appear before a notary public via videoconference. While some documents can be finalized virtually, wills need to be signed in front of witnesses, which means this step to finalizing your documents may need to be done in person.
While you have the time, you should start reviewing your estate plan and making any adjustments with the appropriate professionals as needed. Making necessary and important changes now will benefit you and your family in the future and give you more peace of mind in the meantime.
IF YOU’RE NOT SURE HOW THESE RECOMMENDATIONS MIGHT APPLY TO YOU, GIVE US A CALL.
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