As a single individual, you may feel overwhelmed when you think about who will step in and make decisions for you if you cannot make decisions for yourself and who will receive your money and property when you die. You may consider your parents or siblings, but depending on whether they are living and the nature of your relationship, they may not be an option. Having an estate plan is important to ensure that your wishes are carried out during your life and after your death. If such worries are preventing you from completing your estate plan, we are here to help you.
Choosing the Right Decision Makers
A time may come when you will need someone to handle financial transactions or make or communicate medical decisions on your behalf. If you have not already chosen someone in a properly executed document, the court will step in and, using state law, choose the person who will make the important decisions for you. Below are a couple of the important roles that, to properly protect yourself, you should name someone to fill.
Agent under a Financial Power of Attorney
The agent in a financial power of attorney is the individual who carries out financial transactions (such as signing checks or opening a bank account) on your behalf. The duration and scope of the agent’s authority are spelled out in the financial power of attorney. No matter whom you choose, it is important that your agent be responsible, keep detailed records regarding the financial transactions they undertake on your behalf, and have the time to dedicate to the role. If you have no family member or friend whom you trust to manage your financial transactions, you can hire professionals to assist you.
Agent under a Medical Power of Attorney
If you cannot communicate or make medical decisions, someone else will have to do it for you. By properly naming this person in a medical power of attorney, you retain control over who will make medical decisions on your behalf instead of allowing a judge to select someone to make such decisions. When choosing this person, you must make sure that they will follow your wishes regarding your medical decisions and are available to make or communicate them. If you have no trusted family member to be your medical agent, consider a close friend or a trusted professional. Wisconsin law, however, places restrictions on who can serve as a witness on this document, and specifically excludes the individual’s medical providers and immediate family. These limits must be observed when completing this document.
Choosing the Right Recipients
If you do not have an estate plan prepared, state laws will determine who receives your money and property (owned solely by you and not controlled by a beneficiary designation) and the amount each legal heir will receive. These laws (“intestacy laws”) vary by state, but generally speaking, money and property go first to a surviving spouse, then to descendants (children or grandchildren), parents, siblings, and siblings’ children, in that order, depending on who survives you.
If you have a life insurance policy and fail to designate a beneficiary, the proceeds from the policy may be paid to your estate, necessitating the costly and time-consuming probate process, or may go to individuals according to the order outlined in the policy agreement. Similarly, if your retirement account does not have a named beneficiary, that account may also end up going through probate, which may cause unintended income tax consequences or distributed according to the default rules of the account agreement.
Proper Tax Planning
The federal tax system gives preferential treatment to married people. Married couples can take advantage of the estate tax marital deduction and transfer an unlimited amount of money and property, tax free, to the surviving spouse when one spouse dies. In addition, married individuals are allowed to add any remaining part of their deceased spouse’s federal exemption amount to their own exemption amount. As a single person, you have only your lifetime exemption ($11,700,000 in 2021).
Similar to a married individual, you can give away up to the annual exclusion amount ($15,000 in 2021) without having to file a gift tax return and pay gift tax. However, married individuals can make larger gifts and split the amount between them. For example, Spouse 1 and Spouse 2 can give $30,000 to their child without having to pay gift tax. In this case, a return may still be necessary, but if Spouse 1 and Spouse 2 agree to split the gift, each is technically giving only $15,000 to their child.
Because you can use only your lifetime exclusion amount and the annual exclusion amount, if you are very wealthy, you may need to engage in tax planning earlier and it may be more complex.
We Are Here to Help You
Completing your estate plan allows you to take control by providing instructions about what is to happen during your life and at your death. Estate plans can be drafted in a number of different ways to ensure that your unique wishes are carried out. Call us today to learn more about how we can help ensure that your legacy is protected and that the people and causes you care about are provided for.