Writing your last will and testament may not be the kind of thing you think about every day — especially if you’re young.
Until I had my daughter Rose three years ago, it had been at most a fleeting thought: “I should do this, but I don’t have time right now.”
But a major life change, such as the birth of a child or a death in the family, can be a huge wake-up call. For me, once Rose was born it became something I thought about much more often. What would happen to her if both my husband and I died? Now, pregnant with my second child, it’s something that has begun to weigh on my mind even more heavily.
Then, a few weeks ago, I attended a low-key information session on estate planning with Kim Estess, attorney at O’Diam & Stecker Law Group and fellow mother from my Moms Run This Town group. She used easy-to-understand language and laid out the steps to take when planning for the inevitable.
What Is Estate Planning?
When you hear the word “estate,” you likely think of rich people with huge houses and expensive possessions. But most people, regardless of social standing or income, have what is considered an estate.
Simply put, estate planning allows you to specify what will happen to your investments, possessions and even your children and pets once you die. The first thing you need is an attorney.
What Should You Look for in an Attorney?
The most important thing to look for is someone who specializes in estate planning and has the knowledge to get it right the first time. “The jack-of-all-trades attorney is the biggest red flag in this area,” Estess says.
Also, consider the cost. It might be tempting to go with the cheapest attorney you can find, but that rarely works out, she says.
“You really do get what you pay for,” Estess says. “Call around and get price quotes from a variety of attorneys.” This will give you a clearer idea of the price range you’re looking at. If you choose a bad attorney solely based on price, you may need to pay someone else to fix your will down the road when you realize it doesn’t reflect your wishes.
Ask your friends for advice. “Word of mouth from a friend who has been through the estate- planning process is always the best way to find an attorney,” Estess says. “Bonus points if your friend can explain to you the plan she has in place and why she has it!”
Look for someone who aims to educate you on the process rather than just churn out a will that you don’t understand. You need to know that your will or trust reflects your wishes as you won’t be around to defend or explain it when it matters most.
What Should You Include in Your Plan?
Once you’ve found the right attorney, he or she should be able to guide you by asking questions about what you want to happen to your assets after you die. But there are certain things you should keep top of mind.
“For a couple with minor children, nominating a guardian for your kids is always the driving force for estate planning,” says Estess. “That happens through your will, so many young clients come in the door asking about a will.”
But a will is just one part of a comprehensive estate plan. Estess explains that a good estate plan should include a will, a durable general power of attorney and a health-care power of attorney. A general power of attorney lays out what should happen financially if you become disabled, while a power of attorney for health care specifies whom you would like to make your health-care decisions should you become incapacitated.
You can read a more detailed description of each of these in Estess’ article on Dayton Moms Blog.
Can You Write Your Own Will?
One word: no.
“I really can’t think of a scenario when it would be advised that you write your own will or use an online resource,” says Estess. “There’s so much that goes into creating an estate plan, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all type of process.”
Using a cheap attorney or an online will-writing service might save you money up front, but you’ll end up paying more in the long run.
“If you take shortcuts now, you’ll ultimately end up paying more — because sooner or later, it will end up needing to be fixed, and then you paid once to do it quickly (and likely subpar) and then you’re paying again to get it done the right way,” Estess says.
What Happens if You Die Without a Plan in Place?
The answer to this question largely depends on your location. In Ohio, where I live and where Estess practices law, the state determines how things will be handled.
“For any assets you own jointly with another person, or for any assets that have a beneficiary on them (think of your retirement accounts or life insurance), those assets will be distributed directly to the joint owner or the named beneficiary,” Estess says. “Any other assets will be handled through the probate process and according to those default rules from the state of Ohio.”
This means that if you’re married, your surviving spouse would inherit everything. But if you and your spouse both die, or if you don’t have a spouse, things get a little more complicated.
“Your children would be the beneficiaries, but their shares would likely be held in a probate guardianship account for their benefit until they turn 18,” Estess tells me. “With that comes extra time, paperwork and cost. With a simple will including custodial provisions, you can avoid the need for a probate guardianship for a minor and instead use a custodian to manage the funds for the minor through an account under the Ohio Transfers to Minors Act.
“The [act] allows more flexibility and is more cost effective, and it allows you to choose an age up to age 25 that the money would be held by the custodian for the benefit of your child.”
Twenty-five might sound old for your children to gain access to an inheritance, but delaying it until a later age could help ensure the money will be spent in a more sensible manner. For example, if you grant your children access to a lump sum of money at age 18, they might spend it on frivolous items rather than use it for something that will be of greater benefit in the longer term, such as a down payment on a house.
The best way to avoid dealing with state laws when it comes to distributing your wealth after your death is to have an estate plan in place.
It may be scary to think about your death, but putting off your estate planning could lead to disaster should you die unexpectedly. Instead, face the challenge head-on and make sure you have your wishes written down in legal form should the worst happen.
Catherine Hiles is a writer and editor based in Dayton, Ohio. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, running, cooking and chasing her toddler around the house.
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.
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