Estate planning is important for everyone. Creating an estate plan gives you the power to decide how your assets, debts, medical care and family obligations will be managed when you pass away or become incapacitated. Done correctly, an estate plan can protect your loved ones, provide peace of mind, and put you in greater control over your affairs. Having one in place can also spare your loved ones from making difficult decisions on your behalf, often without knowing your true intentions.
Wills, Trusts and Powers of Attorney
A comprehensive estate plan should include a will, financial and health care powers of attorney and a living will. In some cases, creating a trust may also be appropriate to control how your property can be used. Estate planning offers these and other powerful tools to help ensure that your property – whether it be personal effects, real estate, life insurance benefits, 401(k) plans and IRAs — passes to whom you want and in the manner that you choose. And having powers of attorney and a living will ensures that your wishes regarding medical treatment and management of your personal affairs, if you are ever incapacitated, are likely to be followed.
I can work with you to prepare custom wills, trusts and powers of attorney tailored to your individual objectives and needs. My services cover a broad range of estate planning needs:
- Wills, Trusts, Powers of Attorney and Living Wills
- Special Needs Trusts and Planning
- Basic Elder Law services such as uncontested guardianship, Social Security planning, and retirement benefits
Maximizing the value of what you leave behind is also an important component of estate planning. We can plan how and when assets will pass to your beneficiaries to minimize taxes and preserve the value of your assets.
I approach clients’ estate planning matters with care and compassion based on a thorough understanding of the legal and financial issues at stake. For more information, contact me to schedule a free consultation.
Frequently Asked Questions
Estate planning involves developing a strategy for how your property will be distributed and your affairs will be handled both during your life and after death. It is important to have an estate plan in place to protect your loved ones, to ensure that your assets go to whom you want and when you want, and to appoint a trusted person to act on your behalf in case of disability or incapacity. Having an estate plan in place gives you more control over your affairs, allowing you to decide exactly who will inherit your property and under what terms.
Your estate consists of all property you own at death before it is distributed by will, trust, or under Pennsylvania’s intestacy laws. It includes assets that pass under your will, such as real estate, investments, or accounts owned solely in your name, as well as jewelry, automobiles and other personal property. Your estate also includes property that passes outside your will, such as 401(k) accounts, IRAs, financial accounts with beneficiary designations, and life insurance.
A comprehensive estate plan includes:
- A will, where you declare which beneficiaries receive what specific property, and you name an executor for your estate, who will carry out the instructions contained in your will.
- A durable power of attorney, where you appoint a trusted person to act on your behalf and manage your financial affairs if you become ill or incapacitated.
- A durable health care power of attorney, where you designate someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are ever incapacitated.
- A living will provides instructions to family members about what medical treatment you wish to receive if you are terminally ill and unable to make decisions for yourself.
- Beneficiary designations to determine who will receive assets that pass outside your will, such as 401(k) accounts, IRAs and life insurance.
- A trust may be appropriate, if for instance, you have minor children or a child with special needs.
A living trust is a written document that places assets into a trust for the benefit of the owner during his/her lifetime and which provides for the transfer of those assets to a specified individual or individuals when the owner passes away. Unlike with a will, legal title to the identified assets is placed in the trust. Most living trusts are “revocable” because they can be changed as an individual’s circumstances or wishes change. The advantages of living trust are that they offer a high degree of control over how property is managed and distributed, they are private and they do not require probate, which is discussed further under Estate Administration.
A person who dies without a will is referred to as intestate. If you die intestate, your property is distributed based on Pennsylvania’s intestacy law, which is designed to protect both your surviving spouse and minor children. While your property is likely to pass to your heirs rather than the state, dying without a will may create complications and have unintended consequences. For example, without a will, relatives to whom you did not intend to leave property may inherit your assets, or your property may not be distributed in the manner you would have chosen. Similarly, if your minor children directly inherit money, the court may have to appoint a guardian to oversee how the money is spent.
A living will states a person’s wishes regarding his or her medical treatment in the event that he or she is no longer able to communicate informed consent. An advance healthcare directive provides specific instructions to healthcare providers in a range of circumstances. For example, if the individual is in a coma, in a vegetative state, terminally ill, or so sick that he/she is unable to communicate, the advanced healthcare directive can let treating physicians know what treatment they should provide. Having a living will can ensure that your wishes regarding end-of-life medical care will be followed and that you will receive the level of treatment that you want.
A general durable power of attorney gives broad powers to a person (known as an agent or attorney-in-fact) to act on your behalf. These powers range from handling financial and business transactions, buying life insurance, settling claims, operating business interests, making gifts, and employing professional help. A durable healthcare power of attorney is also a form of advanced healthcare directive that allows you to appoint someone to make healthcare decisions in the event you are unable to make them. When selecting someone to act as your agent under a power of attorney, it is important to choose someone trustworthy and to spend sufficient time explaining your wishes and instructions to that person.
Using a skilled attorney to prepare your estate plan is the best choice. While you can prepare your own estate plan if your estate is not complex, there are risks in trying to do it yourself. For example, some of the provisions contained in your will may be invalid. Or, you may inadvertently fail to include provisions necessary to protect your minor children. Working with an attorney helps ensure that your wishes are carried out – both during life and after death – with respect to your affairs and the disposition of all of your property.