I often get asked if there is a minimum estate value before estate planning is required. The term estate planning is often associated with planning to minimize estate taxes and to plan to pass large amounts of wealth to future generations. Although sometimes this is the case, with the recent changes in estate tax laws most clients do not require estate tax planning and most clients are not passing large amounts to future generations. The typical family has a house, a modest savings and maybe some life insurance. Estate planning is not just for the wealthy, everyone should have some type of estate plan regardless of the size of the estate.
For the majority of our clients, estate planning focuses on two goals: The first goal is protect the client and their family in the case of incapacity. When someone in the family becomes incapacitated, whether through an accident or through a disease such as dementia, it is essential to have legal documents in place that provide a mechanism for another person to be able to step into the shoes of the incapacitated person and have the legal authority to make both health care and financial decisions for that person (someone to pay the bills and make medical decisions). In the absence of these legal documents, the family may be required to spend thousands of dollars to obtain a court-appointed guardian over the incapacitated person to accomplish these same tasks. Guardianship proceedings are not only expensive but are supervised by the court and require constant court supervision and annual accountings. Guardianship can usually be avoided by preparing simple power of attorney documents prior to incapacity.
The second goal of estate planning is to provide for a distribution of the clients assets to their desired beneficiaries in the event of their passing. Often times this entails a plan to delay a full distribution to children until they reach a mature age or to protect the children from creditors or divorce. Another major part of an estate distribution is to avoid having to go to probate court. Like a guardianship proceeding, a probate proceeding is very costly and time consuming because every step of the process is supervised by the court. With careful planning by an estate planning attorney, assets can be distributed to beneficiaries in a manner that will both protect the beneficiaries (sometimes from themselves) and avoid the high costs of probate.
Returning to the original questions of how big an estate must be before estate planning is required? Estate planning is not just for the wealthy; every person should have some estate planning documents. Each client has a unique estate and a diverse family makeup. Should you have any questions as to whether you or your family are in need of estate planning, feel free to call our office for a free half-hour consultation.
Attorney – Corey J. Schmutz