For many, Memorial Day weekend signals the beginning of summer and enjoying warm-weather activities, including backyard barbecues with friends and family. Although a cookout may be an informal affair, planning is crucial to its success. This is true for estate planning, too. Just as preparations are necessary for a successful cookout, a little planning goes a long way to prevent a poorly designed estate plan (or no estate plan at all!) from leaving you and your loved ones in a pickle.
Step 1. The menu: what do you own?
When you plan a barbecue, one of the first steps is to decide what foods to include on the menu. If you buy the burgers and hot dogs but forget the buns, the menu will lack an essential component and the party may be ruined. Likewise, in creating your estate plan, one of the first steps in making sure your goals are achieved is to consider what you own. If you omit important property or accounts from your estate plan, it is unlikely to fully achieve your goals.
As your estate planning attorneys, we will provide you with a checklist that will help you think through what you own so that none of your property is inadvertently left out of your plan. For example, you will be asked to list real and personal property and all of your bank and other accounts, and to note whether you own them individually or jointly with your spouse or another person. Filling out this inventory will help you evaluate everything you own holistically and determine how you want to distribute it when you pass away or if you would like to make gifts during your lifetime. It will also enable us to suggest estate planning strategies that will provide for your loved ones and achieve any other goals you may have, such as minimizing taxes.
Step 2. The invitations: who are your beneficiaries?
The next step in planning your cookout is determining who you would like to invite. Likewise, when creating your estate plan, you will need to decide who you would like to be your beneficiaries—the individuals who will inherit your money and property when you pass away or that you would like to benefit during your lifetime. You may think that this is simple and will not require much thought, but there is more involved in creating this list than you may think. Your beneficiaries may include your spouse or partner, children and stepchildren, grandchildren, other relatives, friends, charitable organizations, and your church.
In determining your beneficiaries, you may want to consider issues such as whether all of your children need an inheritance or if one of them, such as a disabled child, has a greater need. If a child struggles with addiction or gambling, you may decide not to provide them with an inheritance outright and instead create a trust designed to prevent the child from spending their inheritance to support their habit. We can help you consider who you would like to receive your money and property and discuss the best strategies to provide for your beneficiaries while achieving other goals, such as minimizing gift and estate taxes or providing grandchildren incentives to attend college or start a new business.
Step 3. Serving sizes: how much does each person get?
When you plan a barbecue, you need to calculate how much food each person will consume. Your six-foot-tall adult son will likely need a bigger portion than your two-year-old granddaughter. In estate planning, your first instinct may be to provide an equal share of your money and property to each of your beneficiaries. However, as is the case with a cookout, you may want to give some beneficiaries a bigger share and others a smaller share. As mentioned previously, if you have a child with special needs who is unable to support themselves, you may want to create a trust to provide for them and give smaller inheritances to your other children who are financially independent.
Depending on what you own, it may also be important to give certain accounts or property to one beneficiary and other accounts or property to other beneficiaries. For example, if you have a family home, real estate, or business in which only one child is actively engaged, splitting ownership among multiple siblings may set them up for disagreements and strain or destroy relationships. To avoid family fights after you pass away, consider giving hard-to-divide property to one child and money (in the form of accounts or insurance proceeds) to others. Alternatively, you could instruct in your will or trust that the hard-to-divide property be sold and the proceeds divided equally among the siblings.
Step 4. Extra touches: give letters and personal property to loved ones.
Just as you add extra touches such as umbrellas, tablecloths, or strings of lights to make your barbecue a special occasion, you can include special documents in your estate plan, such as letters to loved ones to articulate your feelings for them and leave a final blessing when you pass away. A will or trust document may otherwise seem impersonal, even if you intend for the gifts you make in them to be a demonstration of your love for your family. Leaving a letter to your loved ones expressing your feelings and hopes for them may be one of the most precious gifts you can give.
You may also use a special memorandum, typically called a personal property memorandum, to indicate who you would like to receive your tangible personal property such as heirlooms, collectibles, or items having sentimental value (not real property or intangible property such as accounts). You can use this memorandum to express that particular items be given to certain family members or to make sure that everyone receives something meaningful to them. A personal property memorandum that clearly describes each item listed and who should receive it can also help avoid fights among family members over significant items. To make sure the personal property memorandum is effective and legally enforceable, reference it in your will or trust and include any formalities specified by state law.
Let us help you plan!
You may be worried that you will be grilled when you come in for an estate planning consultation, but we promise that you will be glad you came. Call us today to discuss your estate planning goals, and we will help you create an estate plan that will provide a secure future for yourself and your family.