Surveys estimate that approximately six out of every ten adults in the United States have not done any estate planning, shared Kristin M. S. Poland, staff attorney for the Probate Court of Cobb County, Georgia. Poland, a graduate of the Georgia State University College of Law, was born in Buffalo and raised in Chautauqua County. Though end-of-life planning is an everyday topic for her, Poland understands that it can be an unpleasant task for many.
“If you haven’t started thinking about estate or end of life planning, know that you are not alone,” she says. “But just because people don’t do it doesn’t mean it isn’t important. I think everyone ought to have an estate plan suited to their particular circumstances in life, and review and update that plan regularly.”
And, estate planning isn’t just for seniors.
“Even people who are young and healthy can have accidents or sudden health emergencies,” noted Poland. “If you want your wishes to be known and followed in the event of your incapacity and/or death, put an estate plan in place! You might find, as many do, that having a comprehensive estate plan gives you a great deal of peace of mind despite the initial discomfort.”
Unlike some projects, estate planning should definitely not be “DIY.”
“I always recommend that people speak with an attorney about their estate planning,” Poland says. “If you don’t have an attorney in mind, ask around with friends, family, or neighbors for recommendations. I am well aware that plenty of people employ the self-help model when completing estate planning documents, and that there are inexpensive computer programs that can spit out a will for you, but usually when I encounter these types of documents, the phrase ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ comes to mind.”
Don’t play fast and loose with estate planning; it’s too important.
“Taking shortcuts can lead to mistakes; mistakes made in your planning documents can create protracted and expensive problems for the loved ones left behind,” Poland explains. “An attorney can help you to examine your assets and goals and assure that your plan is personalized to your individual circumstances. An attorney will also be able to advise you regarding things like taxes or other legal implications.”
When you make an appointment with your attorney, come prepared, Poland advises. It will not only save time and headaches later, but will ensure you are receiving the best value for your money.
“Fill out any intake forms from the attorney’s office to the best of your ability. Gather up information about your assets, like bank accounts, real property, retirement accounts, life or other insurance policies, stocks, bonds, annuities, etc.,” she says. “If you have any personal property, i.e., ‘stuff,’ of any substantial value, be sure to let the attorney know. Don’t forget anything you own that is of particular sentimental value, even if the monetary value is minimal.”
So, whether it’s an heirloom pocket watch, a signed first edition of Moby Dick, or a collection of vintage Pyrex that you hold dear, make sure to tell your lawyer about it, and who you’d like to pass it on to one day.
“Some things might pass through your estate and others might pass directly to your loved ones, but your attorney will need to know about all of them,” Poland says.
Along with family members and friends who are special to you, think about the charitable organizations you support.
“Before meeting with an attorney, give consideration to the legacy you wish to leave behind. Perhaps you would like to be sure that money or property left to family is used for a particular purpose, like education. Many people want to include charitable giving in their estate plans, whether that be a gift to an alma mater, a church, the local animal rescue group, or any other organization,” she explains.
Estate planning can get complex—one more reason that it should be left to an experienced attorney.
“There are some things that should be given special consideration when a person sets out to create an estate plan,” Poland says. “One of the most important is whether anyone who may receive any portion of your assets—whether it be a lifetime gift or through inheritance or bequest—has any special needs. Do you want to make a bequest to a minor child? Do you intend to give assets to an adult with special needs? Do you know how such a gift will impact any benefits that individual receives? Gifts to minor children or special needs individuals can have unintended and expensive consequences, despite the good intentions of the giver. It is so important to seek the advice of an attorney if these circumstances apply to you.”
And, for those who still feel squeamish, remember that estate planning doesn’t just include what will happen after an individual’s death.
“Estate planning also often includes what is sometimes called ‘incapacity planning.’ Be sure to ask your estate planning attorney whether this is something he or she recommends and, if so, take those steps. If this is a part of your estate planning, think about what your wishes would be in the event that you become unable to make medical or financial decisions for yourself due to injury or illness. Who would you want to make those decisions for you if you cannot?”
On that topic, Poland says, you will want to give some serious thought to who you appoint to make decisions on your behalf or carry out your final wishes.
“Make sure that anyone you nominate to act in such a capacity is honest and trustworthy,” she says, acknowledging that this can be a hard conversation to have, even in your own mind. “Be honest with yourself about those qualities in the friends or family members you might nominate.”
Poland also says it’s a good idea to consider that person’s relationship to your other loved ones.
“For example,” she says, “when family members are estranged from one another or have a strained relationship, problems can arise if one of those parties is appointed to make health or financial decisions for an incapacitated individual, or to oversee the estate of a deceased individual. If there is already mistrust in the family’s dynamics, it often only gets worse when the stress and heartache of a loved one’s illness or death is added to the mix.”
Please, though, Poland says, don’t nominate someone without speaking to him or her to gauge their willingness to act on your behalf.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise to someone that he or she has been nominated as an agent under a power of attorney or an executor,” she says. “These are big jobs with big responsibilities and should not be taken lightly.”
Another serious topic Poland wants to draw attention to is elder abuse, in its many forms.
“Exploitation and abuse of adults is a large and increasing problem in the United States,” she says. “Elderly adults are particularly vulnerable, and, unfortunately, therefore a huge target for the unscrupulous. Studies show that up to one in ten elderly people will be the victim of elder abuse in some form, including financial abuse.”
Stop waiting. Stop putting it off. Estate planning is a necessary to-do list item that every adult—regardless of whether they’re eighteen or eighty-eight—needs to check off. If you’re one of those six in ten people who hasn’t yet gotten the ball rolling, call a qualified attorney and change that today! You just may find yourself feeling more confident about tomorrow.
Rebecca Cuthbert lives, writes, and cares for shelter dogs in Dunkirk. She is a frequent contributor to Forever Young and Buffalo Spree.