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What is Estate Planning?

One’s estate relates to any of their assets, savings, property, and possessions.  Estate planning is essentially what, whom, and when.  What possessions do you want to give to whom, and when?  This is sometimes referred to as a will, but in general it is a plan of what will happen to your savings and possessions after you pass away.  Estate planning begins with a will or living trust.  It is also important to remember that it is always possible to adjust or update your will anytime you want.  Elder law attorneys usually do estate planning, but not all estate planners do other elder law.  Estate planning can also pertain to:

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Estate planning evokes numerous emotions as we contemplate our mortality and imagine the world we leave behind. As kids, we may have expected to receive an equal share of whatever our parents had acquired. As parents, we might assume we must provide equally for all our children. Myriad situations, however, challenge the expectation of “equal giving.”

Making decisions about how to divide up material possessions can be facilitated by consideration of three questions:

• What is my legacy?

• What obligation(s) might I wish to honor?

• Will my plan nurture the relationships among my kids or challenge it?

What is my legacy?

All of us leave a legacy in the hearts of those we’ve loved and known. In material terms, whether we leave behind a car and enough household possessions for a decent yard sale or a couple residences and a multi-million dollar portfolio, the decisions we need to consider are similar. My friend Juanita put it nicely, “I’ve spent my life teaching in public schools, and volunteering during retirement. I want the schools to have all the help I can give them. My two kids are financially comfortable so I’m not worried about them. I’m donating 80% of what I leave behind to my school district’s foundation and 20% for my kids to split.” Juanita’s gift, no matter the amount, will support the values she’s lived, long after she’s gone.

What obligation(s) might I wish to honor?

Perhaps a legal obligation (e.g. a divorce decree) plays a role in decision making. But most of us feel duties that may not feel optional but actually are. If you accepted a house down payment from your sibling, perhaps you’d want to provide for a commensurate gift (even if there was no expectation of repayment). One might want to acknowledge a daughter-in-law who provided daily health care for a long-term cancer fight with a special gift that treats her differently from other family members. A child with lifelong expensive medical needs might receive a larger share of the whole estate. After having paid for expensive graduate education for one child and not others, a parent might wish to set aside equivalent funds to the other kids.

All of these choices flow around the question of “what do I owe?” If friendship with a teacher or minister or other life-changing relationship springs to mind, perhaps what you “owe” is a debt of gratitude. Gifting people of significance honors them and can express the thankfulness you feel. The same is true with organizations. If you have long wanted to give larger donations to public radio or TV, or civic organizations, political action groups, medical research or service groups, bequeathing gifts to such enterprises is not a duty, but an opportunity to express, in your dying, the goals you sought in your living.

Will my plan nurture the relationships among my kids or challenge it?

No pain is worse than the pain that reaches from the grave and grabs your heart. When my own dad said several hurtful things in his dying days, it was easy to dismiss them as an expression of his response to pain, medication and fear of dying. But the cold words in black and white on his Will were harder to overcome. Imagining how our own kids will read these final words, at a time when they’re grieving, can give us some indication of how our decisions might affect them. There's also the option of discussing the Will with them ahead of time. This gives them a chance to offer feedback, so you can have a better understanding of their feelings toward it.

Many people put off making their Will. They imagine it'll be a piece of cake, or that all this asset divvying-up just sort of works itself out after passing. But that's not the case. Creating a Will that is representative of your true wishes for the future, while honoring the legacy you created and supporting loved ones, requires a lot of thought. Separating the many thoughts surrounding your future estate into the three main categories of legacy, duty, and the kids' relationships, is a good place to start. And remember, don't be shy about getting your family's input or seeking professional advice.

Definition contributed by Kate S. Sharpe, MSW, PhD

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