Is estate planning – creating a living trust or will – still necessary? Yes!

I have heard rumblings that estate planning is no longer necessary because the estate tax exemption is above $5 million, so only those with more than that need to do any estate planning.  Here are the reasons why they are dead wrong:

  1. Probate costs. When you don’t have an estate plan and you have $150,000 in property in California, your estate goes through the process of probate, which can cost your estate tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary fees.  Creating a living trust avoids probate.
  2. Probate time/length.  The probate process can also take several years to complete, leaving your heirs in a state of limbo when you’re gone.
  3. Powers of attorney.  Even if your estate does not reach the $150,000, everyone 18 and over needs to have powers of attorney to determine who will make medical decisions on their behalf, have access to their medical records, and handle their finances should they become incapacitated.  Parents do not automatically have this right, which is why anyone 18 or over needs to have these documents.
  4. Distributing your estate to whom you want.  If you do not create an estate plan outlining who gets your estate, the government has an estate plan for you, and it may not be to your liking.  YOU have the choice and responsibility to determine who gets your estate, but if you don’t make the decision, then someone else will.
  5. Disinheriting heirs in a blended family.  If you have a family with step-children, you could easily dis-inherit them by leaving all of your property to your spouse (a common non-plan estate plan).  If your spouse inherits everything you have when you pass away, because you hold title to your property in joint tenancy, then your spouse will have control over how to distribute the estate at the second spouse’s death, which could very likely end up with your biological children getting nothing.
  6. Naming a guardian for your children.  Once you have children, it is imperative to name a guardian for them.  If you don’t, then a judge who has never met you, your children, or your family will get to decide.  In this case, anyone can petition to become your children’s guardian, and without naming someone, you open up the very real possibility of your children becoming the subject of a lengthy and nasty custody battle when you’re gone.
  7. Planning for your elder years and death.  Medical advances have led to longer lives, but this has also meant that we spend a longer period of time in decline, where we may need care.  We need to plan for that time and for that care while we are still healthy, and by getting our affairs in order, we can accomplish this.
  8. Having dignity in your last years.  When we don’t plan for our decline, then we can find ourselves caught off-guard and without the means or ability to take care of ourselves.  In that case, we may become dependent – or worse, burdensome – on others, generally our family.  Many of us would rather decide in advance how we want to handle our aging: where we want to live, who we want to care for us, how we want to be cared for.  If we don’t plan, then we get stuck with whatever is available.
  9. Saving your family untold grief.  Anyone who has experienced the decline of a loved one understands the difficulty in making caregiving decisions and end of life decisions, not to mention the passing of the estate.  By creating a comprehensive estate plan, we save our families from having to make impossible decisions at every turn.  At a time when family should be able to take the time to grieve and band together, too often there are many decisions to be made and fighting over what’s “best” or what you would have wanted.  These are YOUR decisions to make.  Shouldn’t YOU make them?

WHY A POWER OF ATTORNEY IS NOT ENOUGH: DO YOU HAVE THIS CRITICAL DOCUMENT IN YOUR ESTATE PLAN?

If you created your estate plan more than a couple years ago, you may be missing a crucial piece to the puzzle.  In the past, a power of attorney for health care decisions, which in California includes your advance directive (or living will), was sufficient to name another person (your “agent”) to make health care decisions on your behalf.  But the enactment of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which was designed to limit the access to your medical records – and was focused on insurance companies – actually resulted in limiting the access to your medical records for everyone, including your agent on your health care power of attorney.

Worse, if you don’t have a health care power of attorney, you may think that your “next of kin” – your spouse, your children, or your parents – will have access to your medical information and to be able to make decisions on your behalf.  Unfortunately, with HIPAA and the stricter privacy regulations on doctors and hospitals, this is not often the case.  While you may be looked to for decision-making, if you want to see the medical records or tests results themselves, for example to get a second opinion, you won’t be able to, not even with a power of attorney.

What’s necessary now is called a “HIPAA Authorization,” which I have been using for a couple years now.  It allows the individuals you designate to have access to your medical records and can save your loved ones from hassle and hardship should you be incapacitated.  I use a separate form document, though my older health care powers of attorney included the HIPAA authorization in the body of the power of attorney.

I’ve talked already about the importance of everyone having a power of attorney once they turn 18, but what is also critically important is that you have all the correct documents in your estate plan as well, and a complete estate plan includes a HIPAA authorization.

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