Sun, Sand and An Estate Plan
Article originally published in Southern Neighbor newspaper, Chapel Hill N.C., July 2011 issue
By Todd Washburn, CFP®
Estate planning is not something we eagerly anticipate pondering on the beach. The perception is that it’s something complicated and morbid, and therefore best put off. I disagree. An estate plan is a final gift to those people and organizations you care most about. And because it’s about the people we care about, summer actually isn’t a bad time to think about it. After all, it’s one of the times of year we tend to gather with family and friends. It’s a great time to gather a little information and maybe give a little too.
Briefly, what do we mean by estate planning? First there’s the technical/legal aspect. Usually it’s legal documents- the most common being a Will, a financial Power of Attorney, a Medical Power of Attorney (Medical Directive) and a Living Will. They’re designed to handle your affairs in the event of incapacity or death. But there’s also a personal aspect to an estate plan. It’s your personal wishes for what you’d like to have happen/be done. It’s the legacy you leave family, friends and your community. With that, here are some thoughts about the personal side of estate planning.
The most important thing is to make one. Nike said it best- Just Do It. If you don’t, the state will. But most people won’t like that. There aren’t provisions for gifts to charities or friends. It’s pretty rigid. By doing your own you can do things your way. You can decide who gets what. You can decide who will make decisions for you if you’re sick. It gives you control.
Do what you want. So often people get all twisted in knots trying to save taxes, not offend someone, or fit into someone else’s view. Figure out what YOU want. What’s important to you? What feels right to you? Then work with an estate planning professional to figure out how to make that happen. I offer one caution here. Be kind. Don’t make your estate plan a time to settle scores or reopen old wounds. You won’t be there to enjoy it and I doubt there are bonus points in the afterlife for having left your Black Sheep son out of the Will or leaving the family heirlooms to the distant second cousin to spite your brother. Leave a legacy you can be proud of.
Once you make one, tell people what you’ve done. Let them know your plans- especially if they’ll be impacted by them. If you feel the need to keep it a secret, you may want to reread the part above about being kind. Chances are there’s something there you’re not comfortable with.
Finally- don’t forget the non-monetary items. I’m talking about personal bequests like your grandfather’s watch, your mother’s ring, the table in the corner. They may not have great financial value but they may have great sentimental value to you and others in your family. Help them sort out who gets what. Don’t make them have to debate it when you’re gone. It makes everyone feel lousy. Also consider writing an Ethical Will. It’s not a legal document but rather a personal one. It’s a chance to tell your current and future heirs things like your personal and spiritual values and beliefs, lessons you learned in life, and your hopes for their future. It’s a chance to heal old wounds you may have been unable to in life. It’s a way to pass on part of you to the future.
The technical aspects of an estate plan are important so that it works. But the personal aspects are its heart and soul. Use some of your down-time this summer to think about what you’d like to pass on, personally as well as financially. Use time with family to talk about what’s important to them. You may be surprised that what they value most isn’t what you thought. Then, in the Fall, get the documents drafted. You’ll feel better knowing you’ve done right for those you care most about.
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