The Definition of Estate Planning

“I want to control my property while I’m alive, take care of me and my loved ones if I become disabled, and give what I have, to whom I want, the way I want, and when I want.  Furthermore, if I can, I want to save every last tax dollar, professional fee, and court cost legally possible and leave a meaningful legacy that preserves my values, stories and heritage for future generations.”

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When people think of estate planning they think about death and taxes.  After all, as Benjamin Franklin said, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  Estate planning, however, encompasses far more than just death and taxes. While protecting your assets and controlling estate taxes is an important part of the process, it is not what drives most people to get an estate plan.  Most people start the estate planning process to make life easier for their loved ones.

Despite the nearly universal desire to take care of loved ones, most individuals are loathe to discuss death and, in turn, estate planning.  As such, nearly half of all Americans have no estate plan, including no will or health care documents.  Sadly, it is the living that will experience the tragedy of a failure to prepare for ones death.  Without a proper plan in place, loved ones may be forced to make medical decisions they are unprepared for, may lose exorbitant sums from their inheritance to probate and tax expenses, and will always wonder what the deceased’s true wishes were.  Worst of all, children may be left without a guardian, at the mercy of the court to determine who raises them.

Estate planning is a process during which you develop a comprehensive plan that defines your legacy.  The following is a list of common estate planning techniques we offer to our clients:

  1. Wills—wills are an essential estate planning tool.  Your will stipulates the persons or entities that will inherit all of your probate assets upon your death.  Your will additionally nominates an individual or multiple individuals to serve as your executor, or personal representative.  A will can also be used to appoint a legal guardian for your minor children in the event both parents pass away.  Wills have certain drawbacks, however, as they cannot override beneficiary designations in life insurance policies or retirement plans.  Further, they do not avoid the expense or potential lengthy delays of probate.  For these reasons, a will shouldn’t be the only estate planning device you utilize.
  2. Revocable Trusts—also known as a “living trust”.  It functions in the same manner as a will by specifying who will receive your property when you die.  A revocable trust has supplementary functions, however.  In addition to setting out who will receive your property, it dictates when they receive it as well as where, how, and why.  For instance, a revocable trust can provide that the assets are to be used solely for college expenses if your children are accepted to an accredited university, or it can create a schedule for distributing your assets based on the age of your heirs.  Further, the trust has the monumental benefit of avoiding probate (if properly funded) and can be structured to protect your beneficiaries from future creditors, bankruptcy and divorce.  You can amend the trust at any time and will have full access to it during your lifetime.
  3. Irrevocable Trusts—for clients with sizable estates, it may be most beneficial to create an irrevocable trust which can shield the estate from creditors and taxation.  Irrevocable trusts, unlike revocable ones, cannot be amended once established and you cannot access the assets once placed in the trust.  There are, however, limited means of changing dispositive provisions.  Irrevocable trusts can be complex and require the assistance of a knowledgeable estate planning attorney to ensure your assets receive as much protection as possible.
  4. Health care proxies and durable powers of attorney—each year, countless individuals will lose their ability to make their own decisions, most often due to the complications of old age.  Without a durable power of attorney or health care proxy in place, a family member will be required to petition the court to appoint a guardian or conservator, which is a lengthy, unpleasant process.  This can all be avoided through the execution of a durable power of attorney or health care proxy.  A durable power of attorney nominates an individual or individuals to make financial decisions on your behalf in the event you become incapacitated.  Similarly, a health care proxy nominates an individual or individuals to make health-care decisions when you are unable to do so for yourself.  Both of these tools are essential in proper estate planning, ensuring seamless care over your finances and your person.
  5. Special needs/supplemental trust—a special needs trust is a trust formed for the purpose of providing for the needs of a disabled loved one.  This trust is specially formed so that you can offer financial benefits to your loved one without impacting their eligibility for government benefits, such as MassHealth and SSI or SSDI.
  6. Medicaid Trusts—with healthcare costs soaring, many elderly individuals will invariably require Medicaid, also called MassHealth.  By creating a Medicaid Trust, or an Irrevocable Income Only Trust, you can protect your assets and your home, passing your legacy along to your family.
  7. Retirement trusts—traditional retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s have numerous regulations and limitations.  Under IRAs, for instance, the IRA is not necessarily protected from a beneficiary’s creditors.  Further, IRA beneficiaries may elect to take a lump sum upon your death, which will have tax consequences.  Due to these potential negatives of traditional retirement funds, one alternative is the creation of a Retirement Trust.  A Retirement Trust is set up to be the beneficiary of your retirement accounts.  The trust can be written so as to stretch distributions over the life expectancy of each beneficiary, thereby optimizing tax savings.

These are just a few of the most essential estate planning tools we utilize for our clients.  A skilled estate planning attorney can assess your individual situation and implement a personalized estate plan that is right for you.

The Sullivan Firm Offers The Best Estate Planning Services In Massachusetts

At The Sullivan Firm, we pride ourselves in providing exemplary estate planning services simply unmatched by the competition.  With over 12 years of legal experience we have a breadth of knowledge in estate planning and the expertise to walk you through the complex process of planning your legacy.  You can reach The Sullivan Firm at (978) 325-2721. Click here to download a gift certificate good for one initial consultation with a trusted estate planning attorney (a $350 value).