The Essential Estate Plan

Let’s take a step back this edition and make sure you’re up to date on the essential estate planning components (for Pennsylvania residents). Think of estate planning like building a house. Every house needs a solid foundation, and that’s what I discuss below. However, you may require features such as a home office, an in-law suite, a two-car garage, etc. Just like building a house, each estate plan will vary. How do you know what you need? By consulting with an estate planning attorney (hint, hint). 

Last Will & Testament: A Last Will & Testament (not to be confused with a “Living Will”) essentially allows you to direct who will get your stuff when you pass. A will can range from simple to very complex. For instance, you may not want your son to get all of his money right away. If that’s the case, you might build a trust device within the will, which would provide that the money goes to him only when he needs it or at certain periods of time (annually, etc.). It’s important to make sure you have an up-to-date will with proper beneficiaries and a proper Executor (the person who will administer your estate) and backup Executors.

Health Care Power of Attorney: You need to ensure that a trusted person (and a couple of trusted backups) can make medical decisions for you and speak on your behalf should you become incapacitated. A Health Care Power of Attorney also includes a “Living Will” that covers your wishes if you’re in an end-stage condition (i.e., permanent coma). A Living Will may also be known as an Advanced Directive. If you don’t have a Health Care Power of Attorney, your doctor may not know who he/she can speak to on your behalf, and that could cause legal problems within your family if there are disputes. 

Financial Power of Attorney: Sometimes called a Durable Power of Attorney, a Financial Power of Attorney is vital. If you are incapacitated, a trusted person needs to be able to stand in your shoes and make decisions for you, pay your bills, and speak for you on your behalf. If you do not have a Power of Attorney, a court may be forced to appoint a Guardian on your behalf. A Guardian may or may not be someone you know, and if more than one person wants to be Guardian over you, it may be a contested guardianship proceeding ($$$). Why would you want a court to determine who will manage your affairs?

Estate planning often includes use of trusts for various reasons, and many of my clients utilize trusts to achieve certain goals. For instance, a Medicaid Trust to protect part of their estate against nursing home costs. A Special Needs Trust to ensure a loved one gets an inheritance, while not losing their public benefits. 

No matter whether you need a trust or not, you must get your estate plan completed. If you have completed your plan but it’s been a while, it’s time to get it reviewed.