Secrets of Estate Planning

If you want to live a long time, you'd better look after your health. And that's exactly what Boomers are doing. …If you don't have a will, you are not alone. Half of Americans don't have a will, a living will, or financial and medical powers of attorney. Yet we know a will and other estate documents would ease our family's burdens if something happened to us.

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So what's stopping you? What has stopped me is the process of rounding up information, choosing a lawyer when I don't know any, and not being sure how I want to distribute any assets I might leave (though chances are I will use up every penny if I live as long as my parents). Every day I delay making a will and designating a trusted family member or friend to make decisions is a risk I take that my wishes will not be carried out and my family will lose access to at least part of my estate.

Today, there are more reasons than ever to have a will on file: property transfers that could negatively impact an inheritance if the home is in foreclosure; providing for a significant other in same-sex relationships (or marriage) that may be contested; or setting up a trust for a disabled or incompetent son or daughter.

No matter what age you are, take these steps immediately: name someone to have power of attorney, be a health-care surrogate (medical power of attorney), and act as guardian for minor children; file a living will and authorize persons to have access to medical records and information, overriding HIPAA privacy agreements, in case you need emergency treatment.

If you are going through a separation or divorce, particularly if it is contentious, don't wait to create or redo your will so that if you die before your divorce is final, everything does not go to a spouse with whom you are at odds.

With so many Americans getting married two and three times or more, Thomas C. Walzer, Esq, of Walser Law Firm in Boca Raton, suggests updating your will after a second marriage - even better, designating estate settlement in a pre-nup - so it is clear to whom money and property will pass after your death. Specify what property or heirlooms children of the first (or each) marriage may expect to inherit to prevent ugly conflict in your absence.

Walser also points out how important it is for same-sex couples to get their wishes in writing without delay. Sometimes parents of a partner in a same-sex couple don't want to see family money or property inherited by their child's choice of a same-sex partner and will fight it.

Laws are different from state to state regarding same-sex marriage or union; designate what goes to whom and make sure your parter has power of attorney and is a health care surrogate (if desired).

Jules Haas, Esq., who specializes in estate planning in New York, reminds parents to set up a special needs or supplemental needs trust for any child with a chronic physical or mental illness, especially if they are on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) and could lose access to government support because of a one-time windfall from inheritance. Life insurance proceeds can have the same result. Adds Walser, "specify ahead of time different situations in which the trustee might authorize or not authorize funds so there are some guidelines."

If you have gone through nursing-home care with your own parents, you know how important it is to make provisions for long-term nursing care for yourself. Especially if Alzheimer's or dementia-related illnesses like heart disease run in your family, the earlier you plan to put your assets and property in the names of your children or a trust, the better you can protect your wealth. But federal laws can be confusing, so talk to an attorney about when and whether you should transfer your assets.

The problem of an insolvent estate has become more common in the last five years, says Walser. Don't stick your heirs with the mortgage on a home that has been devalued and gone into foreclosure; if inherited, the child's name is on the foreclosure action. Rather than transferring property, explore possible alternatives like deeding it to the bank. A good property-law attorney can explain the ins and outs of this issue.

Consider ordering Kris Miller's "Ready For PREtirement: Everything You Need To Know NOW So Your Money Is There When You Need It" on Amazon for a look at what you need to do to take care of your money and your family in case of death or any kind of incapacitating injury or illness. Miller, a Living Trusts and Senior Care money expert, speaker and author, has led her clients through the often confusing process of preparing a financial legacy for their families and their favorite causes.

Lastly, just do it. Make the appointment with an estate-planning expert even if you don't know what you want to do or whom you want to name in your will or estate documents. Questioning by an expert will help you clarify what you need to do. You can always change it later once a document is in place.

Judy Kirkwood has finally started the process of estate planning and thinks you should, too.