If you’re like most people, thinking about your mortality is not the most pleasurable experience. As mere mortals, we are not created to live forever and have no idea when our last day will be. Although you may not want to think about it, avoidance is not your best choice because you’re not considering the ones you love and who love you.
So, what is estate planning, and why do you want to do it despite how difficult it may be?
What is your estate?
Your estate is comprised of everything you own: your home, other real estate, furniture, automobile, checking and savings accounts, life insurance, all types of investments, and all the rest of your personal possessions. We are all in the same boat: you can’t take any of it with you when you’re gone.
What can I do with my estate?
Since you’ve worked a lifetime to create your estate, you probably want to control how your belongings are given to the people, causes, and organizations that matter to you. The only way that happens is if you write down instructions for how those things pass along after you’re gone. You can even make sure it is done in the most efficient, cost-effective, and tax-effective way possible. Also, you can ensure this is a private process so your finances are not available to anyone who wants to see them, which can affect those who are receiving your estate.
Generally, what is involved with planning my estate?
A good estate plan:
Plans out, in legal documentation, whom you want to receive your estate and how much;
Provides for financial and health care management while you are alive by including instructions if you become disabled before you die, and gives someone you trust the authority to act for you in medical and financial matters, if you can’t;
Names a guardian and an inheritance manager if you have minor children, rather than letting a court determine who will raise your children and manage the finances during their upbringing;
Provides for any family members with special needs while protecting their government benefits;
Considers the need for life insurance, which will be used to provide for your family at your death, or disability income insurance to replace your income if you cannot work due to illness or injury;
Considers the need for long-term-care insurance to help pay for your care in case of an extended illness or injury;
Can include instructions for passing your values (religion, education, hard work, etc.);
Can provide for loved ones who might be irresponsible with money or who may need future protection from creditors, lawsuits, or divorce;
Can provide for the transfer of your business at your retirement, disability, or death, if you are a business owner; and
Will minimize taxes, court costs, and unnecessary legal fees.
What if I don’t plan my estate?
Thinking about your own mortality is uncomfortable, which is why so many put off preparing their estate plan. Reasons for delays include: “I’m not old enough,” “I’m too busy right now, but I’ll get to it,” “I’m not really old enough,” I don’t own enough,” “I’m confused about the process,” “I don’t know who can help me,” and, of course, “I just don’t want to think about it.” Procrastination is not the best option because, unfortunately, when something does happen, family members who should be focusing on healing because of their loss are instead feeling tremendous stress and resentment during an already difficult time and are forced to pick up the pieces of a mess left behind.
If you are disabled:
If your name is on the title of your assets and you can’t conduct business due to mental or physical incapacity, only a court appointee can sign for you on your behalf. The court, not your family, will control how your assets are used to care for you through a guardianship proceeding. It can become expensive and time consuming, it is open to the public, and it can be difficult to end even if you recover.
After your death:
If you pass without an estate plan, your assets will be distributed according to the probate laws in New York State, which also means that halachic yerushah (inheritance according to Jewish law) is not considered and may even be violated. In this scenario, no matter what you wish, the State of New York will decide how your estate will be distributed. If you and your spouse both die and there are minor children, the court will appoint a guardian without knowing whom you would have chosen to raise your own children.
Given the choice – and you do have the choice – wouldn’t you prefer these matters be handled privately by your family, not by the courts? Wouldn’t you prefer to keep control of who receives what and when? Wouldn’t you want to follow the halachah guidelines for inheritance? And if you have young children, wouldn’t you prefer to have a say in who will raise them if you can’t?
The best benefit is peace of mind.
Knowing you have a properly prepared plan in place – one that contains your instructions and will protect your family – will give you and your family peace of mind. This is one of the most thoughtful and considerate things you can do for yourself and for those you love.