If you pass away without a will, you die “intestate,” and your assets will be transferred to your family members according to the state’s intestacy laws. Intestate succession can be frustrating since your surviving heirs don’t get much say in who receives your assets, but if you have a spouse and children you can at least trust that they will be the primary beneficiaries.
Unfortunately, single individuals don’t have that reassurance. Depending on your family situation, your assets could go to your parents, your siblings, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, and even the state if nobody is around to claim your assets.
Instead of leaving it to chance, it’s important to draft an estate plan now—even if it’s a simple one—to prepare for the unexpected. You can always update or replace the plan if your situation changes, so you don’t need to be concerned with what your life circumstances will be like 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Plan for today, and make adjustments down the road as necessary.
There are 5 parts to a proper estate plan:
- Durable power of attorney
- Healthcare power of attorney
- Living will
- Letter of intent
- Last will and testament
Durable Power of Attorney
A durable power of attorney (POA) authorizes the person of your choosing (known as the attorney-in-fact) to access your assets and handle your affairs if you become incapacitated. You can broadly authorize full access to your assets, or you can restrict access to certain accounts.
Most POAs don’t take effect until you become incapacitated, but it’s not uncommon to see elderly singles with children grant an adult child access to their accounts so they don’t have to deal with the headaches of bills and account management. For this responsibility, most single individuals turn to a sibling or parent. You’re allowed to appoint a close friend, but keep in mind you may need to rescind the POA if your friendship dwindles or ends.
Healthcare Power of Attorney
Where a standard durable power of attorney grants access to your assets, a healthcare power of attorney grants someone access to your medical files and gives them the authority to make important medical decisions on your behalf. Many states allow you to wrap this into a traditional durable power of attorney, but you’ll want to draft a separate document if your healthcare proxy isn’t the same as your financial/legal attorney-in-fact.
Don’t be misled by the name—a living will has nothing to do with your last will and testament. A living will (also known as an advance directive) establishes your end-of-life healthcare preferences. If you are incapacitated and unable to communicate important medical decisions, your doctors will consult your living will to determine whether or not you’d approve of proposed treatments and procedures.
This may seem redundant if you have a healthcare proxy with a POA, but it’s helpful for your loved ones to know exactly what your healthcare preferences are. Decisions regarding artificial life support, resuscitation, and risky surgeries can be extremely emotional and difficult, and making your decisions clear can help to eliminate some of the painful uncertainty that comes with the territory.
Letter of Intent
A letter of intent is not a binding legal document, but it’s a great way to provide formal directions and advice to your loved ones after your death. You can write a letter of intent about anything you’d like, but in the context of this conversation, you’ll want to write a letter of intent specifically addressing your funeral and burial plans. Purchasing pre-need services such as a burial plot, cremation, or casket is always best, but if your financial situation doesn’t allow that, you should at least make your wishes clear and indicate which assets can be used to pay for the services after you pass away.
Note that you can also include these instructions in your will. However, it’s not uncommon for your will to be unsealed a couple of weeks after your death, at which point your funeral and burial have already taken place. If you choose to include this information with your will, we’d still recommend leaving a letter of intent with a loved one who can bring it forward before your funeral.
Last Will and Testament
Last but not least (pun intended) is your last will and testament. Wills are entirely custom and will vary from person to person, but there are a few common elements that single individuals need to address:
- Appoint an executor
- Settle your liabilities
- Name your beneficiaries
- Distribute your assets through probate
The executor (sometimes called a personal representative) is the individual who will handle your affairs and close your estate when you die. This person will have full access to your assets and they will be responsible for carrying out the wishes and instructions in your will, so it’s important to choose someone who is responsible and trustworthy.
This is a very personal responsibility, so most single people nominate an immediate family member such as a sibling or parent. It’s also a good idea to appoint a secondary executor, just in case the primary executor declines the role or passes away before you.
If you have any preference over which assets should be liquidated to settle your liabilities, make your intentions known. The executor will probably exhaust all liquid assets before they have to sell the house or valuable assets, but if there are certain assets with sentimental value that you’d like to refrain from selling, make that clear in your will. If your estate is illiquid (meaning there are more liabilities than assets), the executor won’t be able to shield any assets from being sold to cover the liabilities, but hopefully that’s not the case.
Your beneficiaries are the people who will receive your assets. While single people don’t have a spouse or children to pass assets to, there are still plenty of ways you can leave a legacy. If your parents are still alive, it might be nice to repay them for all of the time and money they spent raising you. If you have nieces and nephews, it’s a great idea to set up a trust for their benefit that can help pay for higher education, marriage, their first house, etc. And don’t forget about donating to charities—establishing a charitable trust or simply gifting assets to a charity is a fantastic way to use your hard-earned assets for good causes.
As you’re naming your beneficiaries, keep in mind that your will can only dictate the transfer of assets that are subject to probate. This includes individual bank and brokerage accounts, property owned individually or as tenants in common, and personal possessions such as vehicles, furniture, jewelry, art, collectibles, etc.
You can gift specific assets to specific people, or you can direct the executor to liquidate the assets and distribute the proceeds accordingly. Accounts with contractual beneficiaries and property owned as joint tenants will automatically pass to the beneficiary when you die, and don’t need to be addressed in your will.
Call Arizona Estate Attorney Dave Weed at (480)467-4325 to discuss your case today.
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