Millennials are known to have a knack for saving and investing, but the vast majority of millennials in America don’t have any semblance of an estate plan. The result? In the event of an untimely death, many millennials die “intestate” (the legal term for dying without a will). Intestate succession laws are fairly straightforward if you’re married or if you have children, but don’t expect to get any say in who gets your assets beyond that.
Absent a spouse, your estate could go to your parents, your siblings, your grandparents, or even that mean uncle you never liked. If you have an unmarried significant-other who you’d like to inherit your assets, there’s a pretty good chance they won’t see a dime from your estate without a will.
There’s also potential for serious challenges if you become incapacitated, perhaps by an accident or a serious illness. Who will manage your finances and pay your bill? Who will have the authority to speak with the doctors on your behalf, and how will they know what your healthcare preferences are?
Fortunately, estate planning is a lot simpler than people think, especially for millennials with small or moderate estates. Take the time to meet with an estate planning attorney, and draft the following essential estate plan documents:
- Advance healthcare directive
- Durable power of attorney
- Letter of intent
- Last will and testament
Advance Healthcare Directive
An advance healthcare directive (also known as a living will) is a legal document that outlines your preferences for healthcare treatment. Are you okay with palliative treatments to alieve pain and suffering? Would you like to be allowed a natural death? How do you feel about artificial life support? These are just a few of the important questions that an advance healthcare directive needs to address. If you’d like to keep it simple you can broadly authorize any and all treatments to preserve your life, or you can specify which treatments you do or do not authorize.
Keep in mind that your doctors will only reference your advance healthcare directive if you are incapacitated and unable to communicate important medical decisions. As long as you can communicate, your doctors will always go with your verbal authorization—even if your choices are contrary to your living will.
Durable Power of Attorney
In the same scenario, who will handle your affairs if you are incapacitated? You could be in a temporary coma for a few days, or something more serious may keep you incapacitated for the remainder of your life. In either situation, you need someone with the necessary authorization to manage your finances and make important decisions on your behalf.
Due to strict financial and medical laws, only your spouse has the inherent authority to access your accounts or your medical files (and even your spouse may be limited in some cases). To prepare for this contingency—however unlikely it may seem—choose a trusted family member, and empower them with a durable power of attorney. Similar to the living will, you can broadly authorize access to anything and everything, or you can limit their access to certain accounts, matters, or situations.
Letter of Intent
This is an aspect of estate planning that’s often skipped over. A letter of intent is not a legally binding document, but it can be a useful tool to offer instructions to your loved ones when you die. You can leave a letter of intent about anything, but there are two subjects that you should definitely address: caring for your children, and planning your funeral.
Both of these topics are usually included in your will—so why is it necessary to address in a letter of intent? Because oftentimes, your family may not open your will until days or weeks after your death. By then, your funeral and burial have probably past, and someone has had to take in and provide for your children until a formal guardian is appointed. Instead of leaving these matters to chance, write a simple letter that indicates who should care for your children, and how that person can access your assets to provide for them.
Write a separate letter detailing your funeral, burial or cremation plans, even if it’s only a two-liner that says you want white roses at the funeral and for your cremated ashes to be spread in the sea. If you’ve purchased any pre-needs services from a cemetery or crematorium, be sure to include that information in the letter so your loved ones don’t pay for those by mistake.
Last Will and Testament
If you have any children, the first thing you’ll want to do in your will is to name a guardian. Remember that guardians have the right to decline your nomination, so be sure to check with your intended guardian to make sure they understand and accept the responsibility. To be safe, it’s smart to name a backup guardian or two, just in case the primary guardian dies before you.
Next, you’ll need to choose an executor to manage your estate. The executor (also known as a personal representative) will be tasked with probating your will, settling your liabilities, and distributing your assets. Most people nominate a family member to serve as executor, but you could also choose a trusted advisor, such as an attorney or financial advisor. As with your guardian-selection, speak with this individual in advance to ensure their willingness, and nominate a backup candidate.
When considering how to divvy up your assets, keep in mind that there are some assets that cannot be included in your will. You can write them down in the will, but the instructions will be entirely irrelevant. These assets have a contractual beneficiary listed on the account, and the assets will transfer to the beneficiary automatically when the financial institution is presented with your death certificate. Such assets include:
- Bank and brokerage accounts with a transfer-on-death (TOD) or payable-on-death (POD) beneficiary
- Retirement accounts (401k, IRA, etc.)
- Real property held in joint tenancy or as tenants by the entirety
- Life insurance policies
Outside of those assets, you are free to distribute the remaining assets as you please. Individual bank and brokerage accounts are simple to assign, as are large assets such as your house, car, boat, etc. But don’t forget about your small—but still valuable—personal property. Grab a pen and paper, and take a walk through your house.
Note everything that’s worth $100 or more: jewelry, collectibles, art, furniture, electronics, guns, recreational vehicles, etc. You can broadly assign these (e.g. Mary Stewart is to receive all assets inside the property at 123 Baker St.), or you can assign the assets individually.
Finally, include a pour-over clause to catch any asset you may have forgotten, and that’s it! You could add a trust, but that’s optional. As long as you have these four documents, the foundation of your estate plan is in place.
Call Arizona Estate Attorney Dave Weed at (480)467-4325 to discuss your case today.
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