Have you started planning your estate? Even if you’re relatively young and in good health, it’s still necessary to think about your future, and if you have money or own a business, it's particularly important to be considering your long term estate planning goals.
The sooner you set concrete goals for your estate and begin to work toward them, the more likely it is that your affairs will be in good order when the time comes.
Estate planning requires both short-term and long-term planning. In the short term, you must write a will, make investment plans, and set money aside. In the long term, things are a bit more complex than that. It’s essential to take a calculated approach to achieve your goals.
Why Is Estate Planning Necessary?
If you’re not convinced that estate planning is a must, let’s start by talking about why it’s something everybody should do. A 2016 survey found that approximately 68% of Americans do not have a will in place.
That matters because, without a will, any or all of the following things may happen:
- In the event that you are incapacitated, your loved ones won’t know what your wishes are.
- Your assets may not go where you want them to go.
- Your children and other dependents may not have the money they need.
- Causes that are important to you might not get the money that you intended to give them.
Now, let’s talk about which three long-term goals are the most important to include when you plan your estate. You may have additional goals as well, but these three should take priority if you want to ensure that your estate is in good order.
Long-Term Goal 1: Saving & Planning for Retirement
The first thing that you need to work toward when you start planning your estate is having enough money to live on when you retire. You might look forward to retirement, but if you haven’t given real consideration to when you want to retire and how you will pay for your living expenses when you do, then the likelihood of being able to retire at a reasonable age diminishes significantly.
The first step, then, is deciding when you want to retire. Here are some considerations to keep in mind
- How is your physical health now? Are there issues that may force you to retire at an early age, or do you envision working for the foreseeable future?
- How many years do you have until you plan to retire? If you’re still young and expect to work for another 30 years, you have time to take a slow and steady approach to retirement. On the other hand, people who are already nearing retirement age or anticipate retiring early will probably have to be fairly aggressive with their savings and investments to be able to retire on schedule.
- Will you have people dependent on you when you retire? If you had children later in life or have a dependent spouse, then you’ll need to take the expenses of supporting them into consideration when you plan your estate.
- Do you have money saved or invested now? How much?
- How much can you reasonably expect to get from Social Security?
Once you have made an honest assessment of where you are and chosen a retirement date, then you can start working toward your retirement goal.
The key consideration for most people when they retire is money. You may need to set up some kind of retirement account if you haven’t already done so, such as an IRA or a 401K.
If you have a pension plan, you can take that into consideration too – but make sure you understand how your Social Security benefits and pension plan will work together. In some situations, your Social Security payments may be reduced as a result of your pension.
There are a lot of considerations to keep in mind, including what kind of IRA to set up and how you can minimize your tax burden, both in retirement and – for your dependents – after your death.
Long-Term Goal 2: Providing for Your Dependents
The next long-term goal you need to keep in mind when planning your estate is how to provide for your dependents. There are a lot of variables that go into estate planning, and one of the most challenging is finding ways to ensure that the people who rely on you now will have what they need later.
If your spouse and dependents are able-bodied, then you may want to consider putting some of your money into a trust for them. A lawyer can help you decide how to set up the trust so that your dependents get the most benefit from it.
One thing that can greatly complicate estate planning is having an adult child who is disabled and dependent on you, or a spouse who is disabled or likely to become so. If you and your spouse own assets jointly, then you might want to consider changing that to help your spouse pay for long-term care and other expenses.
For a dependent child with special needs, you may want to consider a special needs trust. This is a trust that specifically excludes payments for anything covered by Medicaid and covers only expenses above and beyond what is provided by government assistance. The oversight of the trust should be assigned to another family member.
If you need to provide for a disabled spouse, then you may want to put all assets into your name and create a community spouse will. This type of will puts half of your money into an income-only trust for your spouse and the rest into a trust for the benefit of your children and their children.
Of course, it’s not always possible to predict what your spouse’s long-term care needs might be if you predecease them, nor can you be sure that your children won’t need special care. If there are no obvious issues to be addressed, you may still want to consider some kind of a trust and talk to a lawyer about life insurance, long-term care insurance, and other protections to put in place now.
If you don’t already have a life insurance policy, that’s another aspect of long-term planning to put in place now if you can. Unlike some other assets, life insurance premiums do not have to go through probate. Having a policy in place can provide your spouse and children with ready money to use to pay for your funeral or memorial service and any other incidental expenses that may arise.
Long-Term Goal 3: Work toward a Debt-Free Life
The final thing you should think of as a long-term estate planning goal is eliminating as much debt as possible. When you die, your family will have to pay off all outstanding debts from your estate, and that will impact how much money they have going forward.
The average American family carries $6,200 in credit card debt, $17,533 in auto loans, and a total of $220,380 in mortgages. That’s a lot of money, and paying it off can make a serious dent in the money that your spouse and children have to live on.
It’s especially important to keep in mind the interest that accrues over time when you carry debt. Paying your debt now will allow you to minimize interest payments and release your family from the burden of having to cope with debt after you die.
Of course, paying down debt requires very careful planning. It may take years to become truly debt free, which is why this qualifies as a long-term goal.
The first step is to make sure you understand what you owe. It isn’t uncommon for people to be unsure how much they owe because they don’t sit down and figure it out, including everything from student loans to credit card debt to mortgages and other loans.
Once you have a number to work with, you can sit down with an accountant, lawyer, or financial planner and figure out the best way to pay it off. You’ll have to consider interest, penalties for early payments, and your everyday living expenses to make a plan.
Part of your ongoing strategy should be to minimize the amount of new debt you take on. For example, you might decide to pay in cash as much as possible. Setting up a household budget can help you stick to your goal and steadily pay down your debt.
If you have a mortgage, the thought of trying to pay it off early may be daunting. However, it’s important to at least consider the benefits of doing so. Your mortgage is one debt that can potentially accrue to your family’s favor because they may be able to make tax deductions based on it. For that reason, it’s preferable to focus on other kinds of debt first.
Credit card interest tends to be higher than the interest for other kinds of debt, so you may want to focus on paying that off first. Then, if you prefer to pay with a card, find one with the lowest possible interest rate and do your best to pay it off each month. It’s good to have a card for emergencies, too – but for the most part, you’ll be doing yourself and your family a favor if you work to eliminate your debt now.
If you don’t have a lot of money at the moment, you might imagine that estate planning is not something you need to do. However, the opposite is true. The planning, saving, and organizing that you do now will ensure that the money you have stretches as far as possible. It will also serve to maximize the amount you can leave to your spouse and children.
The key to long-term estate planning is to understand what you have now and what you need to have for the future. From there, you can make a plan to save money, pay down debt, minimize the amount of taxes you need to pay and provide for your family after you die.
Because estate planning is a complex endeavor, it’s important to have financial and legal advice as you move forward. Working with a lawyer & qualified CPA will ensure that everything is set up properly.