Chapter 19: Money Left Behind
Immortan Joe: "You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome."
– Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Life sneaks up on you. If you’re saving and investing you may find yourself sooner rather than later with a respectable net worth. Or you become a parent and now you have to think about the future of your child(ren) should something happen to you. Responsibility and entanglements pile up. Even if you’re not hurtling toward the gates of Valhalla it’s time to put in place a basic estate plan.
What is an estate plan? It's a plan to control what happens if you're no longer able to make important decisions. Estate plans are a turn-off because they force you to think about…you know…death. Worse, you may have to work with a lawyer to put one together. It's no wonder that 60% of adults don't have one.  None of this is an excuse for waiting.
If you have children under the age of eighteen, you should appoint a legal guardian, someone who you trust will care for them if you are no longer able to. If you don’t appoint a guardian in writing, generally as part of a Last Will and Testament, the state will appoint someone and that someone may not be your choice. Or Child Protective Services may step in.
If you want a say in your medical treatments should you become terminally ill or incapacitated, you need one or more of the following: a living will, an advance healthcare directive, or a healthcare proxy. These allow you to specify, for example, whether you want to be put on life support (or not), and under what circumstances. They also let you name someone to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so yourself.
A power of attorney (POA) lets you name someone to act on your behalf in financial or business matters.
There are three areas to pay attention to when planning how to bequeath your stuff: titling, beneficiaries, and your will.
Titling is about who officially owns your assets. This can be you alone, you with others, or some legal entity (such as a trust which you control). If you own something jointly with another person, particularly a spouse, it is often as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, meaning the other person ends up with the entire thing if you die first. In that case, even if you do have a will, it won't enter the picture. (There are other ways to own things jointly, with different rules in different states.)
If you name beneficiaries on specific assets, such as retirement accounts and life insurance, they get the payout when you die. Normally, if you designate someone as a beneficiary, they inherit it regardless of what your will says. Stay on top of this! If you divorce and still have your ex as a beneficiary, they may inherit an account even if you have left everything to someone else in your will (though some states and plans automatically revoke spouses as beneficiaries after a divorce). Or if you specifically name your first child as a beneficiary and don’t update the designation when you have your second (or third, or sixth), your first child could end up with everything.
A Last Will and Testament lets you decide who to leave your stuff to. If you don’t have one, the intestate laws of your state will lay out how things are to be split among your heirs. That may not be as you like it. You might think your will is your private business, but after you die it becomes public, along with a list of everything it passes on. It goes through a court process known as probate. In some states this is time-consuming and expensive. Many people, once they’ve accumulated some assets, like to set up what’s known as a “living trust” to avoid the probate process and keep their affairs private.
In a will you select an executor to wrap up your affairs. This should be someone you trust to be competent and follow your wishes. Often it makes sense to pick a family member or friend; but it can also be a professional, e.g., a lawyer, who will do it for a fee. If you don’t appoint an executor, a court will appoint one for you.
Estate planning is mostly governed by state laws. Make sure you get guidance specific to your state. Where do you turn? A competent attorney who will draft your documents is the best way to go. You'll have an initial meeting, receive a draft for review, and then return to sign the documents with witnesses present. Fees can vary but expect to pay $300 to $1,200 or more.