What is Estate Planning?
There is much confusion about what estate planning is and what you actually need to do. I will go through some of the most common estate planning tools, how they work and when they are useful.
1. The Do-Nothing Option
This is probably the most common estate planning technique in Oregon and rarely is it ideal. If you die in Oregon without a will, your assets will be distributed by the laws of intestate succession. These laws are the Oregon Legislature's best guess of how most people would have wanted their assets divided among their heirs. Typically your assets will be inherited by your surviving spouse or equally among a class of heirs. If you are more interested, I have a full post dedicated to the common intestate scenarios linked here. You can also learn more about Oregon Probate on my practice area page.
2. Last Will and Testament
The basic Will is the simplest and most well known estate planning tool. They are generally assumed to have been invented in Ancient Greece around 600 BC. (Wikipedia has an article on the History of Wills.) At its simplest, a Will appoints someone to manage your estate after your death and provides them instructions on how to distribute your assets.
In Oregon you must have "testamentary capacity" in order to create a will. Testamentary capacity defined:
ORS 112.225 Who may make a will
Any person who is 18 years of age or older or who has been lawfully married, and who is of sound mind, may make a will.
Now, there are several formalities that you have to follow in order have a duly executed will. I often hear complaints about these formalities. It is best to think about these formalities not as burdens but rather as quality control measures that make sure people don't steal from you after you die.
Oregon outlines the formalities of a duly executed Will in the ORS.
112.235 Execution of a will
A will shall be in writing and shall be executed with the following formalities:
(1) The testator, in the presence of each of the witnesses, shall: (a) Sign the will; or (b) Direct one of the witnesses or some other person to sign thereon the name of the testator; or (c) Acknowledge the signature previously made on the will by the testator or at the testators direction. (2) Any person who signs the name of the testator as provided in subsection (1)(b) of this section shall sign the signers own name on the will and write on the will that the signer signed the name of the testator at the direction of the testator. (3) At least two witnesses shall each: (a) See the testator sign the will; or (b) Hear the testator acknowledge the signature on the will; and (c) Attest the will by signing the witness name to it. (4) A will executed in compliance with the Uniform International Wills Act shall be deemed to have complied with the formalities of this section.
There is much more to cover on the topic of Wills but this post is meant as an overview for estate planning.
3. Revocable Trusts
Sometimes marketed a "living trusts" or "loving trusts," a revocable trust is a contract with yourself that you can "revoke" if you change your mind. I've written about revocable living trusts in Oregon before but I will recap their uses here as well.
Many people have difficulty understanding how a revocable trust works so I've diagrammed it below.
The two most common uses for revocable trusts in estate planning are the avoidance of probate and conservatorship.
The most common reason why probate proceeding are started in Oregon is because the titled property of the estate exceed the statutory amounts for small estate proceedings. (I will go into small estate proceedings later.) What that means in non-lawyer speak is that your home is worth more than $200,000. There are other ways to exceed the small estate limits but for most people it is the value of their home.
So, by placing your home and other assets into a revocable trust you can avoid probate all together or be able to settle your estate by Affidavit of Claiming Successor. When done properly, a revocable trust can avoid several thousand in probate administration fees and save months of time. Revocable trusts don't avoid estate taxes or shield assets from creditors. There are other tools that can be used to minimize taxes and protect assets and I will discuss those in a later post.
Conservatorship is a kind of protective proceeding in Oregon where the court appoints a conservator to manage the assets and finances of a protected or incapacitated person.
ORS 125.005 (3) defines financially incapable:
Financially incapable means a condition in which a person is unable to manage financial resources of the person effectively for reasons including, but not limited to, mental illness, mental retardation, physical illness or disability, chronic use of drugs or controlled substances, chronic intoxication, confinement, detention by a foreign power or disappearance. Manage financial resources means those actions necessary to obtain, administer and dispose of real and personal property, intangible property, business property, benefits and income.
As people aged they sometimes experience diminished mental capacity or conditions that make it difficult to manage their financial affairs. In these instances it may be necessary to go to court to establish a conservatorship and appoint a conservator. These can be expensive and time consuming proceedings so it is best to avoid them.
A revocable trust can avoid conservatorship by appointing a successor trustee if you become incapacitated. You can provide instructions in your trust on who you want to manage it and how you want it managed in the event you become incapacitated.
4. Advanced Medical Directives and POLST
For many people how they die is often more important than what happens to their belongings. I've written extensively on Advanced Medical Directives and Substituted Healthcare Decision Making before and how a person's faith influences medical decision making.
In a nutshell, Advanced Medical Directives allow you to appoint a Healthcare decision maker and leave instructions for end-of-life treatment. POLST (Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) all you to decide what treatment you want if you have a terminal disease. I encourage all of my clients to complete their Advanced Medical Directives and POLST if they do no other estate planning. I will often hear from a family member who had to guess at their loved-one's desires for medical treatment in the ICU and are traumatized by the experience.
If you have any questions about Advanced Medical Directives, please follow the links above or leave a comment.
5. Virtual Asset Instruction Letter
This is a new area of estate planning that deals with virtual assets and how you would like them handled after your passing. For many of us the majority of our communications and photographs now exist on the servers of Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. I wrote about this before (What is going to happen to your Facebook account when you die?) I've also written about Grieving Online.
How these accounts are handled after your death depends on the Terms of Service of each of the companies. What is important is that you decide who you want to have access to these accounts and what you want them to do with them. Facebook allows you to add a legacy contact to manage your account or to delete your account after your death. Below is a snip from the Facebook Legacy Account Page. Other companies are creating similar programs to help you manage your accounts if you die.
The Virtual Asset Instruction Letter (VAIL) can work alongside your other estate planning documents and provide guidance to the person administering your estate. The VAIL can contain the passwords and logins for your accounts along with directions. Logins and access to financial institutions should be controlled by the Will or Trust but you may want to list them here as well but that is not what VAILs are typically designed to manage.
I would use a VAIL to give instructions about who you want to have copies of your emails or photos after your death. For example, you may have quite a bit of email correspondence with your grandchildren in a gmail account and you may want to provide copies of those emails to them.
For those of you who have monetized Youtube, Instagram or other accounts I would contact an estate planning attorney to advise you on the managing those accounts.
6. Beneficiary Designations and Payable on Death
Certain property does not need to pass through probate in order to be transferred to your heirs or devises. Most often this non-probate property are accounts that allow you designate a beneficiary. These accounts are basically contracts between you and the company holding your account. When you pass away the company will pay or allow access to the account without going through probate.
I explain beneficiary designations and non-probate property in more detail in a previous post. This most important thing to remember is to keep your beneficiary designations up to date and to review them regularly.
7. Specialty Trusts
There are many other specialty trust that are used in estate planning. The most common are Special Needs Trusts, Gun Trusts and Pet Trusts.
Special Needs Trusts
Special Needs Trusts are designed to hold property for a disabled person while at the same time allowing them to utilize government benefits. When creating a special needs trust, great care should be taken so that any government benefits under medicaid or SSI are not disrupted. I will discuss Special Needs trusts in more depth in a later post.
National Firearm Act Gun Trusts
These are trusts created to hold and purchase weapons regulated under the National Firearms Act. The purpose of a Gun Trust is to eliminate much of the burden of owning and transferring what are known as Title 2 devices (machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, grenade launchers, etc.) I think most of the marketing around gun trusts is based on fear mongering but there are some legitimate uses if you have NFA Firearms or a large/unique firearm collection.
A pet trust provides for the care of your pet if you are to die or become disabled.
I hope you have found this overview of common estate planning tools helpful. This is by no means an exhaustive list of options nor is it meant as advice for your situation.
If you have any questions please search the blog, contact me or leave a comment below. As always, please read the Disclaimer in the sidebar before commenting. It is there for your protection.