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Estate Planning Is More Than Just Your Stuff And Who Gets It

During my initial consultation with new estate planning clients, I often start my explanation of what estate planning is by holding up both of my hands.  I explain that one hand, at its most basic level, deals with “What happens to my stuff when I die?” and “Who’s going to make sure it gets to the beneficiaries I have chosen?”  This part of the conference deals primarily with wills and trusts.

The other hand, at its most basic level, deals with “Who is going to help me if I cannot make decisions on my own?” and “How and what are they going to help me with?”  This part of the conference deals with powers of attorney for healthcare and financial and healthcare directives.

There are a lot of details to fill in after the initial discussion but I have noticed that clients tend to appreciate breaking down estate planning into basic concepts first.

This article discusses some of the aspects of estate planning that are also important and should be accomplished with the right plan.

To start, one of the major benefits of estate planning for folks with minor children is that they can name guardians for their children if they were to pass away.  This decision is usually part of the will and I urge clients to name people that they trust, but that can also handle the task of being a guardian, which includes essentially all of the same decisions as a parent.  You want someone you trust, but proximity may be important (continuity in schooling / familiarity for your children) and someone who has the ability to serve.  Your best friend in Kansas City who has four children of her own, therefore, may not make a great guardian selection.  As with other people we select to carry out our estate planning, such as trustees / executors, we want to have successors and alternates in place for guardians.

Burial planning can and should also be achieved in every estate plan.  To start, do you want to be buried or cremated?  Do you care?  If so, where do you want to buried or have your ashes spread?  Should your ashes be kept?  These are all questions that you can answer in your healthcare power of attorney document so it is clear what your wishes are.   Otherwise, your family might “wing it” and choose an option that you would not have chosen yourself.  Does the family have a burial plot at a favored cemetery?  These details can be included in your documents.  Any special wishes as to a funeral or wake can also be determined in these documents.

Another important aspect of estate planning that you can resolve is whether you want to make anatomical gifts.  Do you want to donate your organs?  Any of them?  Only some of them?  For what purposes?  In most cases, you can donate for transplantation, therapy, education and research.  People who have terminal illnesses often want to donate their body to research cures for that illness.  This is obviously a highly personal topic and my role is only to inform my clients as to the best way to carry out their personal wishes, not to persuade them to choose one thing over the other.  Finally, if you know you don’t want to donate, you have the opportunity to clearly state that in your documents.

If there is a charity that you want to donate money to after you pass, you can make that gift in your will or trust.  It’s important to clearly identify the organization (First Church on Main Street is always better than “my church”) and to decide how much you want to give them.  Gifts such as these are called “specific bequests” and can be anything from a percentage of the estate to a specific dollar amount to personal items that the organization might need.

Our office can assist you in figuring out the best way to carry out your wishes with respect to specific bequests.

Cremation versus burial…

One of the difficult parts of estate planning is deciding your wishes as to whether you want to be cremated or buried when you pass away.  In my estate plans, these wishes are expressed in the healthcare power of attorney I create for my clients.

Since I am not in the funeral business, it’s not my job to counsel clients as to the best funeral plan for them.  But I do need to know a little bit about the process so that I can explain the options to clients.

There are two options:  burial or cremation.

If you want to be buried, you need to decide where you want to be buried.  You can buy plots at cemeteries in advance or just indicate that you want to be buried and let your family decide where that might be.  From a cost perspective, burial is more expensive than cremation because there are additional costs, with a casket being the most obvious one.

Cremation has become more popular in recent years for a few reasons.  First, it is a cheaper option than burial.  Second, in some cases, people think it is more intimate for their families, as they can give instructions as to how their ashes are kept or, in many cases, where and how their ashes are spread.  I recently had a married couple tell me to include instructions that their three sons are to take a trip with their ashes back to several locations where they had family vacations when the sons were young.  The idea being that the trip would bring their sons together during a difficult time and ensure that they honored their parents at the same time.

There are obviously many personal reasons to choose burial over cremation or vice versa.

You also need to let your family know what type of funeral you would like.  This could even include the type of food served, who to invite (or in some cases, not to invite), where to have it, what type of music to be played and so on.  Many people associate burial with more traditional funerals and cremation without, but you can do whatever you want.  You can be buried or cremated with as much or a little pomp and circumstance as you would like.

Some of my clients get very specific and some of them do not.  The important thing is that you identify your wishes in your estate plan so that your family doesn’t have to guess.