Estate planning is the process of deciding how you want
your affairs managed, and who you want doing it. It’s about
making your own decisions about your healthcare, your
family, and your money, both while you are alive and after
death. It’s about understanding your own goals and values,
and then putting those to paper in a legally binding matter.
Estate planning should not be a scary or overwhelming
process, but unfortunately there is a lot of incorrect information out there.
One common misconception is that estate planning is only for when we get “old.” Actually, everyone over age 18 (the legal age of adulthood in Wisconsin) should have some form of an estate plan, even if just powers of attorney for finances and health care. Even an adult with an intellectual disability may be able to consider a plan for supported decision-making in appropriate circumstances. For younger families, an estate plan may nominate guardians for minor children and set up a trust to take care of them until adulthood in case parents are not around. It could also mean setting up a special needs trust for the long-term support of a person with a disability. For older clients, it may mean focusing on getting affairs in order in the event of incapacity or death or planning for long-term care, or it may mean charitable giving or setting up funds for grandchildren. Estate plans are very personal plans and are essential at all ages.
Another common misconception is that estate planning is only for wealthy people transferring wealth at death. While estate planning is certainly important if you have $10,000,000, it is also important if you have $10. In the first case, tax planning and transfer of wealth may be more of a priority. In the latter case, public benefit planning may become important. In either case, the estate plan should include comprehensive powers of attorney documents for finances and health care. These documents appoint agents to carry out your health care and financial affairs, according to your instruction, in the event you are alive but unable to do so yourself. Contrary to popular belief, Wisconsin law does not automatically bestow this power on any of your family members (except in very limited circumstances). In our view, these sorts of decisions can be far more important than what happens to your money after you are gone.
Finally, there is a misconception that estate planning is a “one and done” affair. Getting your wishes on paper is only the first step. You then need to communicate those wishes to the people who will help execute your plan, make sure your beneficiary designations and ownership of assets are updated to coordinate with your plan, and possible even update the documents over time in the event of deaths or births in the family, marriage or divorce, a diagnosis of disability, or a change in your personal wishes. However, getting a strong initial estate plan in place with an experienced attorney who can lead you through all these other steps over time is an excellent way to set yourself up for success.