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3 Must-Have Documents Every Family Needs


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We know, there aren’t enough hours in the day to cross everything off your to-do list, never mind find time to plan for the “what ifs.” Plus, no one likes to think about worst-case scenarios.

But the truth is, planning for the unexpected should be at the top of your (very long) list. Chanel Reynolds, a widow from Seattle, learned this after tragedy struck her family. In 2009, her husband José was hit by a car while riding his bicycle and died one week later. “The trauma and grief are enough to completely level you,” says Reynolds.

“And yet, the fear about having our wills drafted but not signed, not knowing how much life insurance we had, not knowing the password to his phone so I could call his family, were often the things that pushed me over the edge. I was shocked by the number of things we had left disorganized or ignored.”

In the years that followed, Reynolds launched gyst.com to help other families avoid what she went through. Her site offers basic templates and checklists for getting your family affairs in order, and she’s turned her experience into a startling cautionary tale —a woman with a happy and full life (just like yours) suddenly and violently turned upside down.

“Some misconceptions around estate planning are that it’s unnecessary until you reach a certain age or that it’s only for wealthy people,” says Patrick Means, a financial consultant for Charles Schwab. But experts urge families to take action sooner.

“Marriage or the birth of a child should be the events that spring people into action,” adds Heather Eshelman McCusker, an attorney for Stevens & Lee, PC in Lawrenceville who specializes in wealth planning, estates and trusts. She and Means recommend putting together a core estate plan consisting of these documents.

The Document -- Power of Attorney

This indicates who can make financial decisions for you if you can’t.

“If you were to become incapacitated or disabled and were unable to manage your own affairs, you’d want to give someone legal authority to act on your own behalf,” says McCusker. “Generally, spouses name one another as their agents,” she says. “You hope it just sits on a shelf [collecting] dust and you never have to use it.”

The Document:  Advance Directive for Healthcare (Living Will)

This indicates who can make healthcare decisions for you if you can’t.

There are two components to your living will. The first allows you to state your wishes concerning the circumstances under which you’d want certain life-sustaining procedures withdrawn or withheld (for example, if you were in a permanent vegetative state or the end stages of a terminal condition for which there’s no expectation of recovery). The second part lets you name a representative who has legal authority to make health decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to make them for yourself.

The Document: Last Will & Testament

This indicates who will take care of your kids, inherit your belongings and manage your estate when you pass.

“A will ensures your children (if they’re minors) and your assets go to the people you choose, not who the state chooses,” says Means. McCusker refers to it as “the core document” of the estate plan. The will names beneficiaries—people who will receive your assets—and fiduciaries—people who will manage your assets. The fiduciaries named are an executor, a trustee and a guardian.

The executor is the person who’s directed to manage your estate after you die. “They’re going to make sure your assets are identified and valued, your debts are paid, any tax returns for the estate are filed and assets are distributed to the beneficiaries,” says McCusker. In many cases, the executor is your spouse, but you may elect someone else should you outlive your spouse. It’s a completely personal choice.

The trustee is responsible for managing money held in trust for any beneficiaries and distributing the funds. Often the executor and the trustee are the same person. Determining who’s going to make the decisions over your assets now can help defuse family conflicts later, adds Means. The guardian is the person who’s going to care for and raise your children if they’re under 18. “If for no other reason, do a will to name a guardian,” advises McCusker. “If you don’t name a guardian for your children, by default, the state of New Jersey is going to decide this personal matter. You should be in control, not the court.”

The cost for preparing these three core documents will vary, depending on your assets, complexity of your estate and your attorney’s experience level. If you hire a lawyer to create them for you, the work may fall into the $1,000 to $3,000 range. If you have a very simple estate, you may be able to work with an online form from a site like legalzoom.com, gyst.com or nolo.com. Prices for online documents are often under $100.

“Doing your will is a hassle, collecting passwords is a pain,” says Reynolds. “But so is going to the dentist, changing the oil in your car and getting an annual mammogram. And we manage to do that stuff anyway.”

Your will can help you save your beneficiaries money on taxes. “While the federal  state tax exemption is $5 million indexed for inflation, the New Jersey estate tax exemption is much lower,” says McCusker. “On January 1, 2017 the NJ exemption went up to $2 million per person. [But] on January 1, 2018, the NJ estate tax is scheduled to be eliminated. In the meantime, if your estate’s worth more than your exemption, it could be subject to tax without proper planning.” Ask your lawyer to add a trust to your will that may help limit the taxes you owe (the savings could be five digits!) when either you or your spouse pass.

“Most people focus on federal estate taxes when establishing trusts to reduce their estate tax bill,” adds Means. “But in New Jersey, the exclusion has historically been well below the federal level, so you’ll probably need to do some extra planning with your attorney.”

Update Your Other Assets While You're At It

While you’re working on your estate plan, make sure you’ve updated non-probate assets, like your life insurance, 401K or IRA. “If you were single when you took out your life insurance policy, you may have named your parents as the beneficiaries, but now you may want to name your spouse,” says McCusker.

Amy Capetta is a health and lifestyle writer based in New Jersey.

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