Estate Planning: Not Just for the Uber Rich

Everyone needs an estate plan regardless of financial situation. Such plans range from short, simple documents to complex series of interlocking trusts, partnerships and wills. It all depends on the nature of the estate and desires of the family.

When done right, estate planning is more than a plan to transfer assets at death or a way to avoid tax, but rather a structure for families to transfer values to the next generation. Estate planning documents let you make your wishes known both for yourself and your loved ones during life, in the event of incapacity, and at death. Here are four things everyone should know about estate planning:

1. Everyone Needs a Will

A will is a document that states your final wishes. It can include instructions for transferring property, paying debts and taxes, as well has naming guardians for children and pets. In your will you name a personal representative or executor who will be responsible for carrying out your wishes. Many people use an estate planning attorney to help draft a will, a tactic we strongly encourage, as there are legal requirements which vary by state. In Utah you must sign your will in front of two witnesses who also then sign as witnesses. (For more, see: 6 Estate Planning Must-Haves.)

2. Consider a Health Care Directive

Health care directives, also known as advanced directives for medical decisions or medical power of attorney, is a legal document which states your preferences for medical care if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. It also allows you to name a person to make decisions on your behalf. While you do not need an attorney to draft this document we recommend consulting legal counsel. Each state has a standard form you can download and fill out on your own. Utah’s document is called the Utah Advance Health Care Directive. It’s important to give a copy to your primary care physician as well as your named agent.

3. Designate Beneficiaries

Make sure you designate beneficiaries on your financial accounts. This includes 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs and life insurance policies. Death, divorce or aging family members are all reasons to revisit your beneficiary designations to make sure they are up to date. Most beneficiary designations supersede instructions in a will, so it is critical they are accurate.

4. Trusts As a Planning Tool

Trusts can be great estate planning tools. You don’t have to have an overly complex estate to benefit from having a trust. There are many different types of trusts and it is important to work with an estate planning attorney when creating these tools. The benefits of trusts depend on the type of trust you create, but in general, they can provide tax, asset protection and legacy planning benefits. (For more, see: 5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning.)