What Is Estate Planning, and Do I Need to Worry About It?

By Brent F. Dille, Attorney at Law

 

When I recently asked for suggestions of specific estate-planning-related topics to write about, one thing that immediately became clear is that many people aren’t entirely sure what estate planning is — and whether it’s something they should be thinking about.

Simply put, estate planning is planning for your incapacitation or death — choosing, for example, what will happen to your financial assets, your minor children, and your health care in such situations. As you can imagine, that’s a pretty broad field, and almost everybody has at
least some degree of estate planning that they should be doing.

At the simplest level, estate planning would include making sure that the beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts and insurance policies are up-to-date. (Remember, it’s the beneficiary designation that controls where the money goes, regardless of what you say in your Will.)

A very basic level of estate planning would also include making sure that you have a Will that accurately reflects your wishes for any other assets (i.e., assets that do not pass directly to a named beneficiary outside of your Will).

At a more advanced level of estate planning, some people will benefit from creating a trust (either as part of their Will or separate from their Will) to serve any of several different purposes. In short, a trust is a legal entity to which you would give some of your assets. Those assets are then managed by a person or entity whom you name (the “trustee”), for the benefit of some other person(s) or entity.

A trust can be helpful, for example, if there is somebody to whom you wish to leave assets, yet who you do not think should be put in charge of managing those assets (e.g., because of a disability or because of a well-established history of poor financial decisions).

Alternatively, trusts can be helpful for people on their second marriage. For example, imagine that you want to leave your assets to your new spouse, but you want to be sure that any assets remaining after that spouse dies go to your children from your first marriage (rather than to that spouse’s children from his/her first marriage). In such a case, you could put the assets in a trust, naming your spouse as a beneficiary to receive income from those assets for the duration of his/her life, and naming your children as beneficiaries who will receive those assets after your spouse’s death.

For some people, estate planning involves engaging in various activities to minimize the effect of estate taxes. This is, however, not a concern for most people these days, given the size of the federal estate tax exemption: $5.45 million and State of Washington exemption of $2.129
million in 2017 for an individual, and twice that for married couples.

Estate planning also includes several topics that are not strictly of a financial nature, such as choosing a guardian who will care for your children in the event of your death, or granting a medical power of attorney to a trusted family member or friend, so that he/she can make health care decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated.

As things change in your life, such as a divorce, death, or you experience a significant increase in assets, it’s important to update your Estate Plan. If you have questions about your personal situation or would like additional information, please call Colleen Gillespie at 360-464-2025, or by email at colleen@sawstonwealth.com. Brent F. Dille, Attorney at Law can be reached at BEAN, GENTRY, WHEELER & PETERNELL, PLLC at (360) 357-2852 or bdille@bgwp.net.

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