It’s one of those things that we all know we should do – but we don’t necessarily want to do it. As adults we’re all aware that it’s important to have a will – and other measures – in place to ensure that our affairs are handled properly if something horrible were to happen. So at some point, most of us bite the bullet and “put our affairs in order.” For those of you who are still procrastinating, however, here are some tips to help you create an effective estate plan, and manage it once you’ve done so.
Begin by taking stock of your personal circumstances. Do so by making a comprehensive list of all of your assets, including but not limited to your investment portfolio, and all personal and real property.
Then consider the following:
- How do you want you assets to be distributed?
- Have you nominated a beneficiary under your superannuation policy?
- Who will look after your children if something happens to you and/or your spouse?
- Who can you trust to ensure that your wishes are carried out as stipulated in your will?
- Who will handle your financial matters if you are unable to do so?
- Who will make medical decisions on your behalf if you can no longer make them yourself?
The next step is to draft your will. You can do this (and draft other legal documents in your estate plan as long as you are at least 18 and don’t have any physical or psychological issues that would render you legally incompetent) with the assistance of a qualified legal professional, or on your own using legal resources available online. Although choosing the latter may seem like a more affordable option, consulting a lawyer can save you time and money in long run. Specifically, he or she can help determine which assets you can automatically include in your will – and which ones (such as joint assets, superannuation and life insurance policies) you can’t and most importantly, the implementation of strategies to ensure your hard-earned assets go to the beneficiaries you have chosen, as opposed to those you have not.
Don’t forget to choose an executor. This is crucial because the executor is the person who will oversee the distribution of your assets and other matters as stipulated in your will. Make sure it is someone you trust and is equipped to cope with family squabbles and any unpleasant issues that may surface. He or she may be a friend, relative or a financial or legal practitioner.
Next, make sure you’ve assigned power of attorney. By doing this, you’re giving someone the legal authority to make decisions and/or take certain actions on your behalf in certain circumstances. You can designate power of attorney to someone for only a limited time; in the event that you are no longer able to make your own decisions; or to make decisions regarding your medical care if you are unable to do so.
You should also consider creating an advance health directive. Creating this document is another way to ensure that your wishes about medical treatment and related matters are known in the event that a catastrophic illness or injury renders you incapable of making decisions about your care.
While you are at it, talk to your lawyer about the pros and cons of creating a testamentary trust. This is a trust that is included in your will, can be used to protect your assets, and will only take effect when you pass away.
This may be a viable option for you if:
- Your beneficiaries are not yet legal adults
- Your beneficiaries are mentally incapable of handling certain responsibilities
- You want to keep your beneficiary/ies from squandering their inheritances
- You do not want family assets to be divided in a divorce settlement
- You want to protect family assets in the event of bankruptcy
The trustee, or person who administers the trust, will also be appointed in your will. He or she is in charge of the assets set aside for the beneficiaries until the trust is no longer in effect. How long the trust remains in place is up to you. Usually, it will be effective until a minor becomes an adult, gets married or successfully completes their education.
Once you’ve conferred with your lawyer and drafted all of the legal documents you’d like to include in your estate plan, let your executor and relatives know what they are and where you keep them. You should also keep and let them know where to find any other significant legal and financial paperwork including your:
- Birth certificate
- Marriage certificate
- Personal insurance policies
- Documents pertaining to real estate holdings
- Financial and retirement information
- Superannuation papers
- Investment documents (securities, share certificates, bonds)
- Health insurance documents
- Pensioner concession card
- Any deposits for funeral investments
You should also get into the habit of going through all of the paperwork in your estate plan at least once or twice per year. Doing so will allow you to be proactive when it comes to making any changes. This is especially important when it comes to your will, which should be amended in the event of:
- The sale of important assets
- The creation of a family trust
- The acquisition of new assets
- Additional financial obligations
- Changes to your personal affairs
- Changes to your super or SMSF
Whenever you make changes to your will, you should also ensure that any beneficiary designations on insurance policies and so forth also reflect the changes.
Finally, it is important to keep the lines of communication with relatives open throughout the estate planning process. By being candid about your wishes from the outset, you’ll reduce the likelihood any misunderstandings and hurt feelings in the long run.