October 15-21 marks National Estate Planning Awareness Week in the United States. The observance seeks to educate Americans about the importance of having proper estate planning documents in place should death or incapacity suddenly occur.
Estate planning is one of the most overlooked areas of personal financial management. According to the National Association of Estate Planners and Counselors, it is estimated over 120,000,000 Americans do not have up-to-date estate plans to protect themselves or their families in the event of sickness, accidents, or untimely death. Furthermore, according to a 2004 survey by Lawyers.com:
- 69% of adult Americans do not have a Living Will or Advance Medical Directive
- 58% of adult Americans do not even have a basic Last Will and Testament
- Only 21% of adult Americans have established a trust for estate planning purposes
Many people overlook these simple protections because they falsely believe they are only for the elderly or the ultra-rich. Whether you are a 20-something new parent just starting out, a wealthy entrepreneur or a senior citizen relying on others for long-term care, estate planning provides a solid legal foundation for protecting your family, your financial security, your wishes and your independence through all of life’s transitions.
Protecting these four areas is absolutely critical for every adult for the following reasons:
Your Family: If you have minor children, estate planning allows you to appoint the people you want to raise them in the event of your unexpected death or incapacity. Using trusts, you can protect minor children, and even adult children, who may not be prepared to receive a large sum of money after you die. Tools such as health care directives and powers of attorney can make it easier for your family to oversee your medical and financial affairs during a health care crisis. Not to mention, estate planning can help shield your loved ones from unnecessary court/legal fees, taxes, strife and family feuds during an emotional time of crisis or loss.
Your Finances: Whether you have a billion-dollar estate or a simple home and a modest savings account, estate planning can help ensure more of your money goes to your family and not the government after your passing. Proper estate planning can also help seniors and baby boomers qualify for Medicaid and additional VA Pension Benefits for health care without becoming impoverished or “spending down” everything they own. Many professionals such as physicians and contractors also look to estate planning to shield their personal assets from lawsuits, creditors and other risks associated with their occupations.
Your wishes: Do you have assets you wish to leave to certain people? Are you in a non-traditional relationship or blended family and want to ensure your loved ones are taken care of and share in your inheritance after you are gone? Is there someone you trust to make important medical or financial decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so? Without estate planning documents in place, all of these personal decisions will fall to the courts and state law if the unthinkable happens.
Your Independence: With a solid estate plan in place, you no longer have to fear aging and whether or not you’ll become a burden to your kids during the golden years. Instead, tools such as living trusts, powers of attorney, insurance policies and health care directives can help you proactively fund your future care needs and carefully design the life and independence you wish to enjoy during your later years.
Everyone needs an estate plan—some are just more complex than others. This is why National Estate Planning Awareness Week is a great time to review your personal and financial situation and learn how things like wills and trusts can help you protect your assets and the people you love. Don’t think you’re not old enough or don’t have enough money to get started either—if you own a home, have minor children, special needs children, retirement accounts, insurance policies, a business or you are in a non-traditional relationship, you need to take legal steps to protect yourself and make your wishes known.
- Steven Greenwood, Esq.