Estate Planning: Just One of the Things

You Cannot Do Post-Mortem

By Amy Morris Hess

Many people think estate planning is simply signing a will.  And most do not want to think about a will, let alone talk with a lawyer about it, because the conversation requires us to come face-to-face with the fact that we will die someday.

There are at least two flaws in this thinking: First, estate planning is much more than the act of signing a will.  And second, whether we think about it or not, we are going to die someday, so we might as well plan for it.

Estate planning includes planning for a time when you cannot handle your financial and medical affairs yourself.  For many of us, this will not happen until we are quite advanced in years.  But for some, it could happen because of a sudden severe illness or injury in the prime of life.

Put bluntly: If you were hit by a truck tomorrow and had to undergo weeks of medical treatment and recovery, who would make your mortgage or rent payment on the first of next month? Who would feed your cat?  Who would talk to medical professionals about your treatment preferences if you could not speak for yourself? Does your family know the conditions under which you would prefer not to be kept alive if you were terminally ill and unable to speak for yourself?

Preparing documents that answer those questions is estate planning.  An estate planning lawyer can explain all your options and help you draft and sign documents that express your wishes.

Of course, planning for the disposition of your assets as well as your body after death also is estate planning.  And if you don’t make plans for your assets, your assets will be distributed anyway under a state law called the intestate succession statute.  If you write a valid will or another document of transfer such as a trust agreement, you can say who you want to receive your property after your death and also who you want to handle the distribution.

You can also make special provision for relatives who are in special situations, such as naming a guardian to raise your minor children or creating a trust and naming a trustee for someone who cannot manage property well.  An estate planning lawyer can advise you on the simplest method of achieving your goals for your property and your family after you die.

Estate planning also includes consideration of assets that will be distributed to others after you die but will not be disposed of under your will.  If you have life insurance, a pension plan at work, an IRA, a 401K account, or any property that you hold jointly with someone else, you should include these in any discussion of your estate plan.  The lawyer who drafts your will or trust needs to know about these assets in order to get an accurate picture of your financial situation.  That lawyer also can advise you on the best way to word the beneficiary designations for these assets and can outline the tax consequences, if any, that these assets might have during your life and at your death.

Amy Morris Hess is a longtime member of TVUUC. Although she no longer advises private clients, she has been a lawyer and a law professor in the Knoxville community for more than forty years and will be happy to recommend local lawyers who do an excellent job on all aspects of estate planning if you do not already have a lawyer to help you.