Estate planning documents allow you to legally and financially protect your life savings, your home and other assets from probate, along with unnecessary taxes and the devastating cost of long-term care.
The common goal of estate planning is twofold. Firstly, it lets you keep control and plan for your assets while you are alive – for yourself and your loved ones – if you become disabled. And secondly, when you pass, it ensures that what you want gets to whom you want, in the way you want, with the least amount of cost and frustration.
Here, Esther Acosta, attorney and founder of Plymouth-based Acosta Law Firm, PLLC, explains the importance of each.
Path to planning
Seven years ago, Esther Acosta’s life changed forever. After an 11-month battle with a brain tumor, Acosta’s husband passed away, leaving her and two children, ages 5 and 2 1/2, behind. After his death, Acosta contended with numerous financial and legal decisions. In fact, it wasn’t until her husband was in hospice care, Acosta says, that the duo began discussing estate planning. Paralyzed with emotional and physical numbness and refusing to accept the full weight of grief: This is not the right time to make critical decisions.
“I’ve gone through this process; I do not practice in the abstract, but in reality,” Attorney Acosta says. Today, she works to ensure others don’t have to endure what she did. That’s why she founded Acosta Law Firm, PLLC, located in Plymouth, where she specializes in estate planning and elder law.
“Estate planning is about the living – and dying is just a small piece of it,” she says. In fact, part of estate planning involves putting plans in place for your care as you age. “At some point in your life, two things will happen: either someone will have to step in to care for you or to bury you.” What happens during that time is miserable and stressful.
But can shape your own legacy by taking a few hours to plan or you can leave your family with baggage to deal with.
For those who don’t understand the legalities, Attorney Acosta makes sense of all the documents needed. To ensure you’re protected and your wishes are carried out, read on for details about the five most important estate planning documents.
A will is a legal document that states a person’s intentions and wishes for how his or her assets – including your home, investments, any other real estate interest, bank accounts, retirement assets, debts, life insurance – should be distributed after death.
It’s not the be-all-end-all document, though, Attorney Acosta notes. Oftentimes, an individual’s will ends up going to court. In fact, she says, three things tend to happen with a will after an individual’s passing: It goes to probate court, there are costs involved with court, and every wish and intention named in that will becomes public information.
A trust is a contract between the grantor (the creator), trustee (the person who controls the trust) and the beneficiary (who benefits from the trust).
“Trust is your own rulebook,” Attorney Acosta says. “You can create how you want your assets to be distributed to your loved ones.”
You can give assets to your children outright or you can give them in a trust. If you give it to them outright, they can run into problems – particularly if they’re involved in a divorce, creditor problems or bankruptcy, including the loss of government aid or even disqualification from receiving disability benefits. A special needs trust is helpful for those with children who would be receiving these sorts of benefits.
“You’re not only planning for yourself, but you’re planning for your child when you’re not here. You cannot control your children, but you can protect them from the grave,” Attorney Acosta adds.
Health care proxy or a patient advocate
This document is an expression of your wishes, and “it allows you to appoint someone to make health care decisions for you,” she says. “I call it a God proxy.”
If you can make your care decisions beforehand, take advantage of that opportunity. After all, it’s a lot of pressure on the caregiver to make those decisions on your behalf. This document allows you to give instructions including whether or not you want to be on a ventilator, how long you’d want to be and more.
A durable power of attorney
This document outlines details on who can make financial decisions for you while you’re alive. The person who holds the durable power of attorney can pull money from your bank account, sell your home and make other financial decisions on your behalf.
“It’s a powerful document,” Acosta says, adding that it is only valid when you’re alive. “It gives them authorization to make financial decisions.”
A personal care plan
A personal care plan is arguably the most unique document of the bunch. It offers guidelines for someone who steps into the role of caregiver.
Acosta asks her clients if they like to go to movies, how often they get haircuts, how they drink their coffee, what kind of books they like, what their hobbies are and more. In addition, she asks about memorial instructions after death.
This way, when someone becomes a caregiver for that individual, they are given a personal blueprint.
While estate planning conversations are difficult, they are imperative.
“We struggle with these conversations, but they are so important to have and revisit,” Acosta says. “Estate planning is like an act of love. You’re taking a pact to care for someone. It’s a tangible part of your love story and your life.”
For more information on estate planning and elder law, visit Acosta Law Firm, PLLC online at acostaestatelaw.com.