How to Leave Your Worldly Goods
by Tamika Johnson
Have you decided that it's time to consider estate planning and contemplate when and how to distribute your assets to your heirs? Realistically, you imagine that this process will entail a series of trade-offs to prevent emotion-laden family problems.
When you focus on numbers, you're dealing with objective and straightforward facts. But you're in murkier waters when considering who should inherit your wealth, and you understand that emotions will factor into your decisions; there's no correct answer to how to distribute your estate. But here are some questions that will help frame your thinking:
- How much would you like to give to charity and how much to your family?
- Will you divide your assets equally among your heirs, or on some other basis, such as need or good behavior? What behavior do you want to reward?
- What form does your estate take? Cash? Securities? Other assets? Do you want to give these outright or in trust?
- Can your heirs handle the responsibility of managing their own finances, or will they need help? If you use a trust, what will its provisions be? How long should the trust last? Whom will you designate as the trustee?
- Will you make gifts or bequests? If you move your assets out of your taxable estate during your lifetime, will this reduce your ultimate estate and gift tax bill? Would you enjoy seeing the effects of your gifts during your lifetime?
But maybe we should take a step back and clarify what an heir is — it's not necessarily the same as a beneficiary. An heir is a relations who potentially is entitled to money or property after you die — a spouse or a child. Laws in each state outline the exact order in which heirs inherit property, but the list stops at a certain point — not every heir automatically inherits.
Indeed, the term "heir" is often used when someone has died without a will. When that happens, the estate administrator tries to find who rightfully inherits the property.
A "beneficiary" is a person or organization who receives money or property by being specifically named in a will or trust. Beneficiaries can include charities, places of worship, descendants or close friends. When you specifically name someone to inherit your assets in a will, you've named a beneficiary.
If there's a will, beneficiaries often have more rights to whatever assets remain after probate. No will? The assets go to the first heir in line, and the process continues until a living blood relative is found. (Rules may vary depending on jurisdiction.) Trusts can help ensure the people you want get your assets, in the form you want.
Ensuring that your hard-earned assets transfer to your heirs is obviously part of a well-thought-out estate plan. Although it may be uncomfortable to have such a conversation with your spouse, children and other possible heirs, it will enable them to ask questions and to clarify what your wishes are, and allow you to communicate the location and nature of your assets by providing a simple road map to your spouse or other designated heir. It's important that someone know how to access your wealth. While the estate planning talk deals with sensitive issues, it will mean a smoother transition for your heirs after your death.