Estate planning is the process of planning for your own demise. It is probably the least favorite subject of personal finance, but is also one of the top priorities for many retired individuals and couples.
The process of detailing your wishes for disposition of your assets can be a very detailed process, and depending on your personal and family situation, perhaps very complicated. With limited space, my goal is to provoke a few thoughts for your consideration, and to encourage you to take action at a level appropriate for you.
Wills – The most basic estate planning document is a will. A legal document with your signature witnessed and notarized, your will outlines your wishes for how your assets, both physical and financial, are to be distributed. The estate of a person dying with a will be processed though probate court, which carries some costs for court fees and attorneys. No probate is necessary in the case of a deceased spouse, whose assets can be passed to the surviving spouse with no limitation, assuming the surviving spouse is named in the will as the beneficiary or heir.
Trusts – Trusts exist in several varieties, but generallly are designed to allow the grantor of a trust to specify detailed instructions for the distribution of assets and are also written with the intent of avoiding as much estate tax as possible. An estate tax is also known as a death tax and is assessed as money passes from one generation to the next (again, no taxes or probate are necessary when assets are passed to a surviving spouse.
Trusts are more detailed and more expensive to put in place, but the cost is well worth the peace of mind that it gives the grantor of the trust, as well as potential money savings, which may otherwise be paid in taxes.
Generally, most individuals act as the trustees of their own trusts while alive, and successor trustees are named in the trust document to carry out the instructions in the trust after they pass. Successor trustees are often children, but depending on the ages of the children or the potential for conflict between siblings, it is not uncommon to name an attorney or a professional trustee, also known as a corporate trustee, as the successor. There is an additional cost for the services of a professional successor trustee.
Powers of attorney – While not directly an estate planning document, durable power of attorney and healthcare surrogate powers are commonly accomplished in conjunction with wills and trusts.
Durable power of attorney appoints an individual to take care of your personal affairs (generally financially related) if you become temporarily or permanently incapacitated and not able to handle these duties on your own. Healthcare surrogate powers are granted to an individual you designate to make decisions regarding your medical care if you are limited in your own ability to do so.
Roth IRA conversion – 2010 will offer a unique opportunity to convert traditional IRA’s to Roth IRA’s and you won't have to pay the federal income tax on the converted amount until 2012 and 2013. The former cap of $100,000 modified adjusted gross income is also being removed, allowing conversion to become an option for many who previously were prohibited due to their income level.
Why convert? There are several potential benefits, but the biggest one is for those who don’t anticipate using the assets in their IRA during their lifetime. Passing the IRA to heirs as a Roth has some significant advantages.
I suggest you consult an estate planning attorney to discuss which estate planning tools are appropriate for your personal situation, as well as a financial professional who can help determine any advantage of a Roth IRA conversion for you. Even those who have estate planning documents in place should conduct a review of these every few years to make sure any changes in law or tax code are planned for.
Tom Breiter is president of Breiter Capital Management, Inc., an Anna Maria based investment advisor. He can be reached at 778-1900. Some of the investment concepts highlighted in this column may carry the risk of loss of principal, and investors should determine appropriateness for their personal situation before investing.