This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.
Death – right up there with taxes – is one of the few certainties, yet estate planning is something that many fail to consider until it is too late. Rather than leaving it to your spouse, your children, or worse, the state, to figure out, your best bet is to make your wishes are known while you are still healthy and of clear mind.
The last will and testament, often just called a “will,” is the estate-planning vehicle with which most individuals are familiar. A will specifies how you want your property to be divided. You can divide your estate by percentages, for example, in equal parts to your children. You can designate that certain things go to certain people (your grandmother’s diamond ring to your niece, for example). You can make provisions for the care of pets, and, more importantly, you can make provisions for the care of minor children, including naming the person you would want to become your child’s guardian if you died. You have the ability to be very flexible in creating a will that meets your needs. You don’t even need an attorney to create one for you, though that is certainly preferable; very specific requirements must be met to make sure it is valid.
Of course, there is a variety of types of trusts that you may wish to create. A trust is, generally speaking, a financial agreement that allows a third party “trustee” to hold assets on behalf of one or more beneficiaries. Very often that agreement will include specific instructions about how and when the beneficiaries can get and use those assets. For example, a trustee might be instructed to pay the beneficiary a monthly stipend from the trust. Whether you are wanting to protect your estate from lawsuits, to provide ongoing support for your child until he or she is responsible enough to be trusted with a larger sum of money, to ensure family wealth lasts for generations, to provide for a charity, or for some other purpose, trusts can be an important part of your estate planning.
A financial power of attorney can be created to allow your designated agent – usually a spouse or other trusted loved one – to handle your financial affairs in the event you can no longer do so yourself. A medical power of attorney is similar, but for medical decisions. Living wills specify your thoughts and wishes on the types of life-saving procedures you consent to being used on you and under what circumstances. Organ donation is often a polarizing topic and, if you wish to be an organ donor upon your death, you must enroll in the Ohio Organ Donor Registry and clearly specify which organs you are willing to donate and for what purpose.
Of course, if you don’t take steps to plan, these decisions will be left to your heirs, or possibly even the state. While estate planning is not a pleasant task, it is an important one, and a little planning will both ensure your wishes are followed and save your heirs from a big headache down the road.
*Andrew Zashin writes about law for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is a co-managing partner with Zashin & Rich, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.