Where is Your Wealth Going?
A well-designed estate plan ensures that your wealth fulfills your wishes while avoiding conflict among your heirs.
You have spent your lifetime accumulating your wealth, providing for your lifestyle, your family, funding your goals and priorities. Like most people, I am confident that you have some idea of what you would like your legacy to be; who you want to inherit your assets, how much and maybe even what they can do with that inheritance when they receive it.
A well-constructed wealth transfer plan is critical. It solidifies yours wishes and guides the movement of your assets from your estate to your beneficiaries in the most cost effective and tax efficient way. Baby boomers are already in the throes of the most significant wealth transfer in history. Over the next 25 years, they are expected to leave $68 trillion in wealth to their heirs.
How that wealth transfers, to who and to what end, can be clearly outlined in your estate plan.
Without a plan, your assets can end up in probate court, which will decide what to do with them. This process can be slow and expensive. In addition to avoiding court, documenting intentions can help head off potential disagreements among heirs.
Everyone needs an estate plan, regardless of the size of your estate or your age.
Here’s a look at the basic steps you should take to start your wealth transfer plan today.
Review Your Assets
The first step when building a wealth-transfer plan is to take stock of your assets. List your financial assets, including retirement accounts, brokerage accounts, and life insurance policies, and note where they are held. Next, list hard assets, such as real estate and any other valuable items you own. Consider bringing in an appraiser to determine monetary values for your home or other property.
Once you’ve listed your assets, decide whom to leave them to. A spouse or children are common choices, but you may also consider extended family or close friends. At this time, consider what kind of legacy you want to leave behind, perhaps by supporting charities, educational institutions, and other nonprofits you care about.
Write a Will
A will is a legal document that sets your wishes down in writing and ensures your assets are transferred to the people and organizations you choose. Name an executor whom you trust who is willing to take on the responsibility of executing your will. Wills can be complicated documents, so you may want to hire a lawyer to help you write one.
Check Your Beneficiaries
Money from retirement plans, life insurance policies, and other accounts will go to those listed as beneficiaries on the accounts regardless of what your will says. Review these lists every year and update beneficiary designations as your wishes change and reflect life changes, such as marriage, divorce, deaths, and births.
Choose Someone to Make Decisions on Your Behalf
Powers of attorney and living wills are legal documents that specify who will have the authority to make financial and medical decisions if you can’t. Choose someone whose judgment you trust and who understands your wishes clearly.
Understand Estate Taxes
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doubled the estate-tax exemption to $11.58 million, meaning most people’s estates are not subject to estate taxes. If you have a vast estate, consider gifting to reduce its size and the taxes it will owe. You can make monetary gifts to charity. And you may also give away as much as $15,000 ($30,000 for couples) gift tax-free per person per year. There is no limit on the total number of people you can give to. Even if your estate is well under the exemption threshold, tax-free gifting can be a way to see the effect your bequest has on the lives of your heirs while you are here. Additionally, under a new presidential administration there might be some significant changes to tax policy that would impact these exemptions.
Keep Key People Informed
Make sure anyone assigned a unique role in your estate is aware of their full responsibilities. You may also want to talk to your heirs about your wishes and how you arrived at your decisions. Making your plans known can head off potential conflicts among your heirs further down the road. Keep estate planning documents and other important financial information such as account passwords or property titles in a safe place, and let your heirs know how to find them. We like to recommend that you create a spreadsheet with all this inforamtion and upload it to a secure online vault providing one person with access.
The intersection of financial, legal, and family issues can make wealth transfer a complicated matter. But a well-crafted plan can help ensure the process goes smoothly. Enlist your financial and legal advisors’ help to build a sound plan that ensures your wishes will be honored.