With COVID-19 raging through the nation, and limited supply of PPE at hospitals, doctors and other critical care personnel are at high risk due to their increased and daily exposure to the virus. For health care workers, the need to plan for a possible worst-case outcome for themselves and their families has become an immediate concern. Doctors are spending limited weekend time urgently completing the paperwork so that their family is protected in case of the worst outcome. If a person were to pass away intestate (with no will or living trust), the legal system makes the decision on their behalf, which can be a long and expensive process.
To alleviate the stress, as a physician financial blogger, here is my suggestion on what exactly should be completed:
1. Get mentally prepared. This may sound trivial, but while some find this easy to do, others end up in tears — especially during this sensitive time — thinking about some of these decisions regarding their children and family, should they pass away. The best way to view this is that you are taking care of everything should something happen, with the hope that nothing will. This is also a good opportunity to express to a partner, family member, or confidante the stored up stress and fears that we all have when life-death is concerned.
2. Complete a revocable estate trust in addition to a will. This group of documents, usually prepared as a set, includes:
- A living trust. This document designates how to handle all of your assets (home, cars, and especially non-retirement accounts, etc.). It ensures that not only are your assets secure from probate but also that the money is delivered and spent in the way you intend it to be.
- A pour-over will. This document acts as a catch-all, directing the courts on how to dispose of anything not handled above. Very importantly, it also designates who will be guardian to your children in case disaster occurs.
- Power of attorney for finances. This document designates who will make financial decisions for you if you are unable to.
- Power of attorney for health care decisions and advanced health directives. These documents designate who will make medical decisions for you and carry out any specific medical requirements.
The additional benefits of having a full estate plan is that it will help you avoid the long and expensive probate (proving of the will) process, will keep all of your information private, and help you avoid estate taxes (gift, inheritance and death taxes). This process is especially important if you are married, have children, and/or have a positive net worth.
If you complete only the will and specify beneficiaries for the accounts, which many opt to do, it will only designate the guardians to your children but not a trustee for your assets, or timeline of how your assets should be distributed. Beneficiaries are paid out immediately or given full control at the time of your passing. What decisions should be made based on a will is the reason the probate process exists, so to count on a will to take care of things is often ensuring additional work for those left behind. A will is also available to the public with a small fee, upon your death, which can lead to a loss of privacy for your loved ones.
3. Get an emergency binder ready. You can use Google Docs or Excel to list all of your accounts, insurances, burial services information, obituary, and include the full estate or will paperwork in the binder. Remember that you need a physical copy of the will. It is not filed or submitted anywhere before your death. For account passwords, you can use a password manager such as LastPass.
How can I quickly have the estate plan done?
If you opt for the online version, you can use Trust & Will or LegalZoom. Estate planning is state-specific, and both of these websites will provide you with the correct forms for your state, and they have attorneys on board to answer your questions.
Once you complete the forms, you can download, or they will mail you two copies. You will need the appropriate parts notarized in-person or online, and two disinterested (not related to you) witnesses will need to sign the appropriate parts of the paperwork. Keep each copy in a separate location, with one preferably in a safe deposit box. The turnaround time is dependent on how quickly you can answer the questions above. For some, it takes about 15 minutes; for others, it takes a couple of days to think over.
Call a few estate planning attorneys in your area and ask their process and pricing (pricing ranges from $800 to $3,000). The attorney will ask questions and guide you to which documents you should complete depending on your circumstance (there are some exceptions where people only need to do the will or irrevocable trust), and your specific state laws. And it’s always helpful to have an attorney available to answer your questions and help you set up the timeframe of how your assets should be distributed. Once the questions are answered via phone/video, they will meet you to explain all of the documents, notarize it as needed, and provide you with two copies.
Afterwards, you may need to update some bank accounts, deed of any property, insurance, etc. to the name of your trust. The “name of the trust” is usually something boring like your last names+the word trust+date. Going forward, everything should be named to your trust as specified, and you can always change it and update it as needed since it is revocable. The trust will become irrevocable at death.
Stay safe, everyone, and thank you health care heroes.
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