Estate planning is important for everyone, regardless of your income or circumstances. Wealthy individuals and families will probably need a more complex estate plan, but the other 99% of Americans still need a plan to prepare for contingencies, ensure your family is provided for, and ensure the assets you’ve worked hard to accumulate are transferred to the right people.
A good estate plan should also address retirement income, what will happen if you become incapacitated, and your funeral and burial plans. Following is a quick summary of the topics you’ll need to address, with special attention given to aspects that may be impacted by benefit programs for veterans.
If you or your spouse have served in the armed forces, you’ll want to consider military pension programs that can supplement personal and Social Security income. You served our country with valor, honor, and distinction, and you deserve the benefit programs that exist to assist military families with supplementary income.
When you meet with an estate planning attorney or financial advisor, be sure to address your eligibility for the following programs:
- Veterans Pension – this benefit is available to wartime veterans with low household incomes. To qualify, veterans who served in the armed forces before September 7, 1980, must have served at least 90 days of active duty with at least one day served during wartime. Veterans who served in the armed forces after September 7, 1980, must have served 24 months, with at least one day served during wartime. Pension income payments are tax free.
- Survivors Pension – also known as the Death Pension, this benefit is intended for the spouse and children of deceased veterans who served during wartime. The pension is subject to the same qualifications as the Veterans Pension, although eligibility can be rescinded if the surviving spouse remarries, or if the veteran was dishonorably discharged. Children of veterans who apply for this pension program must be under 18. Adult children may qualify if they are under 23 and attending a VA-approved school, or if they have been disabled since before they turned 18. Income from the Survivors Pension is also tax free.
As you’re working with an experienced professional, be sure to consider how your family will be provided for in your absence. If your combined benefits and income does not allow your surviving loved ones to enjoy the same standard of living, you should consider using life insurance to bridge the gap. Many financial institutions have special rates and programs for veterans that make life insurance more affordable.
Advance Healthcare Planning
If you become mentally or physically incapacitated during your lifetime, you’ll need preparations in place to make sure you and your family are properly cared for. If you’re married, your spouse inherently has the right to access your financial accounts and your medical records, and to make important decisions on your behalf. However, if your spouse is unavailable (perhaps you were both incapacitated in an accident, or they pass away before you), then you’ll need someone else to fill the role.
Consider drafting a durable power of attorney to appoint an attorney-in-fact to handle your affairs. Most people turn to their adult children or siblings to care for them, but you’re welcome to choose anyone you trust. The power of attorney should authorize them to access your finances, pay your bills, access your medical files, and make important decisions on your behalf.
It’s also a good idea to draft an advance healthcare directive (also known as a living will). Your living will dictates your healthcare and treatment preferences, and is useful for your doctors and your attorney-in-fact if you become incapacitated and cannot communicate to make important medical decisions. Topics that are commonly addressed in a living will include palliative care, artificial life support, and resuscitation.
Funeral and Burial Plans
As a veteran, you are entitled to burial in one of the 135 national cemeteries in the United States. The VA will cover the following at no cost to you:
- A gravesite
- Opening and closing the grave
- Perpetual care
- A Government headstone or marker
- A burial flag
- A Presidential Memorial Certificate
If you choose to be buried in a private cemetery, the VA will pay up to $300 towards burial costs for non-service-related deaths, though there are additional benefits that the deceased may qualify for that can increase the VA reimbursement. The VA will pay up to $2,000 for service-related deaths.
Spouses and dependents of veterans are also entitled to burial benefits. At no cost, qualified family members are entitled to the following (even if they die before the veteran):
- Burial in a national cemetery with the veteran
- Name, date of birth, and date of death inscribed on the veteran’s headstone or marker
- Perpetual care
Distributing Your Assets
A proper estate plan includes the following:
- An executor – also known as a personal representative, this is the person who will settle your affairs and close your estate when you pass away. They’ll be tasked with gathering your assets, settling your liabilities, and distributing your remaining assets. You can nominate someone for this responsibility in your last will and testament.
- Instructions for assets subject to probate – individually-owned assets need to be dispositioned in your will or transferred to a trust in order to pass to your beneficiaries. Assets subject to probate include bank accounts, brokerage accounts, real estate owned as tenants in common, vehicles, and valuable possessions.
- Instructions for assets not subject to probate – because probate can be a cumbersome process, many assets can be positioned to pass to your beneficiaries without going through probate (saving your loved ones time and money). These assets usually have beneficiaries named in the asset’s contract, and will pass to the beneficiary when the financial institution or trustee receives a copy of your death certificate. These assets should not be included in your will. If you do, the contracted beneficiary will trump any instructions in your will, and the situation can give rise to challenges to your will in probate court. Examples of exempt assets include real estate owned in joint tenancy, accounts with a transfer-on-death or payable-on-death beneficiary, life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and trusts.
Call our Estate team at (480)467-4325 to discuss your case today.