Estate planning increases choices

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Reese Phillips
  • 934 AW Staff Judge Advocate
We've all heard the saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." This is especially true when speaking about estate planning from your survivors' perspective. What is estate planning? Estate planning is nothing more than taking steps to determine how and to whom your assets will be transferred upon your death.
Do you have to conduct estate planning? No. In most instances, should you? Yes! If you die without a will, each state will have its own law of intestacy, which essentially spells out a descending list of your family/blood relatives who will get your probate property.

Think of it as being similar to our own presidential succession list, e.g. President...Vice President...Speaker of the House of Representatives, etc. In some instances, these rules will match the beneficiaries you chose in your will. However, even if the person/people you would name as beneficiaries are the same as what the law says, a will still has several benefits. In many instances the probate process (the court administering the transfer and accounting of your assets upon your death) will be much smoother with a will. If you have a will, you will likely be able to utilize expedited probate processes offered by your state.

You will be able have more choice in deciding who fills certain roles such as executor, custodian/trustee (manages property passing to minors), and guardian (person who will care for your minor children). Finally, a will allows you to give a particular item to one person, even if everything else would go to the same person as what the law says. For example, if you are a single parent and it's your desire that your children receive everything in equal shares and you die intestate (without a will) that most likely would occur by law.

However, the law would not say anything about which child would get what. You can imagine how that might cause some disagreement, especially if you previously promised a certain item of value to a specific child. A will would allow you to determine which child receives a particular item and this may alleviate some conflict and uncertainty in already difficult times.

Completing a will also gives you the chance to speak with an attorney about other aspects of your estate planning, because a will is just one part of the process. You should also ensure that your SGLI is properly updated because your will has no bearing on your life insurance beneficiaries. You may also consider designating payable on death (POD) beneficiaries on all or some of your financial accounts, i.e. savings/checking accounts, mutual funds, 401Ks, etc., and titling certain assets jointly with right of survivorship, both of which will allow your beneficiaries to receive the monies or assets much quicker than waiting for the court to administer your will.

Finally, if you take the time for estate planning you most likely care about the people you are leaving behind, not only from an economic standpoint, but also from a "hassle avoidance" perspective. I try to drive the latter point home with my estate planning clients by asking them the question, "If you were appointed as an executor/personal representative for someone, what information might you like to have?" Their most common response is right on point, "What property did the deceased own?" Therefore, I encourage each of you to compile a complete list of your financial accounts, real estate holdings, as well as whatever other obscure property you may own that is not readily ascertainable. You should also state the location of all important documents relating to your holdings, and every so often do a little housekeeping with respect to those records.
I also recommend that you include contact information for the institutions or people that are managing your various assets, including a good POC for your military-specific benefits. Believe me; your grieving survivors will be extremely grateful if you do whatever you can now to make their lives easier.