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Estate plans: What are they and who needs one?

Published On: Nov 01 2013 10:58:52 AM CDT
will, legal papers, generic, estate planning

iStock/IuriiSokolov

By attorney Keith Morris, Special to THELAW.TV

To understand what an estate plan is, first it's important to understand what constitutes an estate.

An estate consists of all the assets a person owns. This includes personal possessions, real estate, savings accounts, stocks and bonds, retirement plans, life insurance, etc. Creating an estate plan is the process of deciding what will happen to all of these assets when you die.

This process is what's known as estate planning. There can be a range of elements in an estate plan, depending on the size of your estate and the type of assets. An estate planning attorney can help you determine what your assets are and what your estate plan should include.

Every estate plan should include drafting a will that dictates precisely which assets should go to which heirs. It's also wise to include powers of attorney and advanced medical directives. These legal documents name an agent to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf if you should become incapacitated. Naming guardians for minor children and creating trusts are also common elements of estate plans.

Who Needs An Estate Plan?

Often, people see estate planning as something that only the wealthy need. However, no matter how large or small your estate is, your loved ones will benefit greatly by having a legal blueprint of your final wishes.

Having no plan in place when you die can leave quite a mess for your loved ones to deal with. Months, even years, can be spent in probate court trying to sort out your estate. In the end, property will be divided according to state intestacy laws rather than your wishes. An estate plan will help your loved ones avoid a prolonged probate court process and ensure that your wishes are followed.

It's not uncommon for individuals to put off estate planning, seeing it as something that should be done when they're much older. A will is something every adult should have in case of accidents or unexpected illness. But other documents an estate planning attorney can help draft are also important, no matter what age you are.

Other estate planning tools, such as powers of attorney and advanced medical directives, give your loved ones a roadmap for your wishes if you are incapacitated. Should you become unable to make decisions for yourself because of illness or injury, these documents allow an agent to make decisions for you, in accordance with the wishes you have laid out. This can help avoid stress and potential conflict among family members.

All of these mechanisms and more can be put in place with the assistance of an estate planning attorney. These legal professionals are experienced in building the right estate plan for every situation and can help you get your affairs in order.

The author, Keith Morris, is an estate planning lawyer in Houston, Texas.