Estate — an old-timey word that might elicit visions of Downton Abbey — managed to make its way into national news headlines thanks to months of legislative grappling over Trump’s tax reform plan. In arguing the bill favored the wealthiest of Americans, critics pointed to provisions like the increase in the estate tax exemption, which, along with other estate planning techniques, allows the super-affluent to avoid taxes at death. With this type of negative coverage, it’s no surprise some Millennials perceive estate planning as no more than a tax-dodging scheme for the old and rich.
Contrary to its nefarious reputation in the news, an estate plan in its simplest form consists of legal documents that define our wishes for the greatest certainty in all of our lives: death. Still, more than half of Americans don’t have a basic plan, according to a Caring.com survey. Regardless of our age or wealth, spelling out what happens if you pass away ensures your money goes to the people or causes you care about most. Although some Millennials recognize these benefits, we tend to focus more on enriching daily life than making plans for a seemingly far-off future. While this short-term mindset might allow us to live happier lives today, overlooking essential estate planning could cause heartache down the line.
Jonathan Schwartz, an estate attorney and associate at the New Jersey-based law firm of Sherman Wells Sylvester & Stamelman LLP, has worked with Millennials to implement documents like living wills, last wills and testaments, trusts and powers of attorney. I spoke with Mr. Schwartz about how these documents can benefit Millennials regardless of wealth. Like me, Schwartz thinks those who see past estate planning misconceptions and establish a basic plan can create a legacy that benefits the people and causes that matter most.
Living Will & Health Care Proxy
It’s hard enough to talk about money in general, but pushing someone to think about death and dying doesn’t really brighten the day. Mr. Schwartz says he prefaces every client discussion by offering up a blanket “heaven forbid” regarding the hypothetical situations he goes on to discuss. While such scenarios are rare and certainly not fun to contemplate, it’s important for Millennials to recognize the unfortunate reality that bad things can and do happen. While we know we will die at some point in the future, we should consider the chance we become seriously injured or sick before we die.
In such an event, a document called a “living will” specifies what medical treatment doctors can provide (or withhold) if we become unable to communicate our wishes. Possible treatments include things like resuscitation, artificial nutrition and hydration and ventilation. In addition, a health care proxy appoints a specified person to have access to our medical records and make medical decisions as needed (even if you’re going to make a healthy recovery). “Defining these preferences helps families avoid conflict and can lessen the burden of making difficult judgment calls,” says Schwartz. Though often associated with terminal illnesses, health care proxies can prove beneficial in less dire situations by permitting an appointed agent to speak directly with health care providers or even to pick-up test results.
Power of Attorney
Beyond our medical wishes, we need to consider how, for example, a spouse would manage basic financial matters if we become incapacitated. A newly married couple obviously isn’t going to spend the honeymoon thinking about estate planning. Still, we should at some point start thinking about ensuring our spouse has access to our assets in the event we unexpectedly become disabled. “I find many married couples still have separate pots of money and have, for various reasons, opted to forgo the often-tedious process of retitling at least some bank accounts into their joint names,” says Schwartz.
For assets not held jointly, what’s known as a power of attorney can enable our spouse to act on our behalf when it comes to basic financial decisions. Mr. Schwartz explains to clients that even the simplest things like paying the mortgage and other bills become problematic when most of the assets are in the name of the person who becomes disabled and can’t go to the bank. “By empowering your spouse as your attorney-in-fact under your power of attorney, you’re making things easiest in a time that may otherwise be very difficult,” says Schwartz.
Last Will And Testament
It’s difficult for Millennials to come up with wishes for something that feels so far away. As our feelings, values and family relationships can often shift over time, last wills and testaments are never set in stone. “A will isn’t final until we die,” explains Schwartz. Whether we die tomorrow or many decades from now, a will should reflect our current values and ensure our family is not left scrambling to figure out how to distribute assets. In the document, we can assign someone to dispose of our assets in accordance with these specified wishes.
We should also recognize that creating a will is about more than our money. Rather, it’s about extending our values beyond our life and creating a legacy. To that end, a will can establish a guardian for surviving children rather than leaving the decision to the courts. Mr. Schwartz explains that a guardian should be someone you trust and who shares your values. Other than a legacy to our children, a will can carry out our charitable giving, often enabling us to support our most important causes more than ever before.
While the word trust might evoke images of “trust fund” kids in polo shirts and penny loafers, these legal structures can benefit more than just the wealthy. A trust typically created upon death will usually include provisions detailing when and how our kids can access our assets if we pass away. “It doesn’t always make sense for our kids to inherit everything right away, especially if they’re not necessarily mature enough to handle the responsibility that comes with money,” says Schwartz. Setting an age when our children inherit money can help instill our values and protect from poor decisions.
As part of the trust itself, we must select a trustee for the children who can further carry out our values. Trustees should understand certain basic concepts about how to manage money, but perhaps more importantly, have the courage to refuse to hand out money when our kids want to take it all to Vegas. We need to pick someone who could serve in this role for many years and who could appoint a successor if he or she is no longer able to serve.
Millennials who see past misconceptions in the news will recognize that a basic estate plan benefits more than just the old and rich by defining what we want to accomplish now and in the future. “We’ve wrongly been conditioned to think that creating legacy requires wealth,” says Schwartz. “If you work hard and you save, you owe it to yourself to protect the fruits of that labor and whatever else matters most to you.” While there’s nothing wrong with prioritizing short-term planning that benefits daily life, we should recognize that planning ahead isn’t about fixating on death, but about celebrating our youth by ensuring our values can endure.