Back to school season can be a bittersweet time — on the one hand, it’s so hectic, it can seem impossible to fit anything else in. On the other, you finally have the kids back in school, returning to after school activities, and you regain a few pockets of time during the day that are in your control. I have young children myself, and I often think of back to school season as a kind of second New Year. It’s an opportunity to take a breath, set my intention, and decide what the year ahead is going to look like.

This week, as kids get back to school, you may find yourself with a few minutes of down time to tackle your to do list. What should get done first? What will be your New School Year Resolution?

Take Estate Planning Off the Back Burner

At Brian M. Douglas & Associates, we see the real-life importance and urgency of estate planning on a daily basis. That’s why we are always encouraging people to take estate planning off the back burner once and for all.

Don’t worry. We aren’t suggesting that you spend the next few weeks gathering documents, waiting on hold with banks, taking inventory of all your worldly possessions, and spending hours (at a steep hourly rate) talking to an attorney. No, what we are proposing is actually pretty easy, and it can be done in fifteen minutes.

Unlike other times when you may need a lawyer (if you’re in a car accident, if you are getting divorced, if you are negotiating a contract for your business), estate planning lends itself fairly easily to a step-by-step approach. The whole process can be broken down into bite-sized pieces that won’t disrupt your life. You don’t have to do everything at once, and you don’t have to pay hourly to meet with an attorney. At Brian M. Douglas & Associates, our estate planning packages are offered at reliable, flat rates and can be provided at your own pace.

So, why not make estate planning your New School Year Resolution?

Step One: Make the Phone Call

Here’s your easy-to-accomplish, take-action-now first step: make the phone call. It will take less than fifteen minutes to call and make an appointment for your initial consultation with an experienced estate planning attorney. On your call, you will receive the support, information, and resources you need to start on your estate planning path.

See, that wasn’t too bad, was it?

Step Two: Get Yourself Organized

Remember, getting organized is Step Two, not Step One. We put organization here after you’ve spoken with an attorney because we know how difficult getting organized can be without some professional direction and support. In our experience, getting organized is the number one reason why families end up failing to create estate plans at all. They think that they need to have all of their paperwork in order, their assets itemized, and their debts paid off before they even raise the subject of estate planning with an attorney. The exact opposite is true. You absolutely do not need to have everything organized, figured out, and paid off before you meet with an attorney.

In fact, we are here to help you get organized! We recommend that you at least initiate the conversation with an attorney before diving into document organization yourself. This will help you avoid wasted time and effort.

Once you have spoken with an attorney, he or she can provide guidance and help organize a list of all your assets and of all your debt. The attorney can also help you gather beneficiary designation forms from your bank, create a list of personal property, and corral your digital assets.

Step Three: Take Care of Guardianship ASAP 

If you have minor children, this step is urgent. If something happens to you, you need to know that your children will be cared for by someone that you know and trust. In the State of Georgia, guardianship is handled in your will. We will talk more about managing assets using a will in the next step; but guardianship should be your first order of business. In your will, you can name first, second, and even third choice guardians for your minor children. If the worst should happen, a court would take your named preferences into account when designating a guardian for your children.

Step Four: Address Your Assets 

You’ve heard already of the primary way assets are transferred after death: the will. However, a will is not the only way to transfer assets, and it’s not necessarily the best for you. A will is a set of instructions to the probate court that primarily 1) name a personal representative to oversee the distribution of your estate, 2) list any individuals to whom you want to leave assets, and 3) name guardians for your minor children. Although your instructions are taken into account, they will not change the basic outline of what will occur after your death:

  • Your will is provided to the probate court and probate is opened for your estate (at this time, the will and all future probate proceedings become a part of the public record),
  • A personal representative is named to oversee administration of your estate (taking under advisement your preferred representative named in the will),
  • The personal representative marshalls your assets and notifies all potential creditors who may have a claim against your estate (this can take quite a long time, and may cost a lot of money, depending on the size and complexity of your estate),
  • The personal representative then pays out all legitimate claims against your estate, as well as any final taxes, court costs, and attorney’s fees owed,
  • Of the remaining assets left in the estate, the personal representative divvies up your wealth to your named beneficiaries.

If this process sounds long, expensive, and pretty public, you wouldn’t be wrong. For some families, probate makes sense. Others prefer to create a trust to pass assets outside of probate. Not only do non-probate assets avoid the delay, bureaucracy, cost, and public nature of probate, they also allow you to exercise more control over how, when, and for what purposes assets are distributed to your loved ones after you’re gone.

Step Five: Prepare for Temporary Incapacity

Estate planning is actually a bit of a misnomer because a truly comprehensive plan has mechanisms to protect you and your loved ones even before you die. If you are injured or fall ill, whether temporarily or permanently, certain documents need to be in place.

A Power of Attorney (POA) is a document that allows you to designate an individual who can step in and take financial and legal responsibility on your behalf if you are unable to do so. Your Power of Attorney will allow the designated individual to take care of things like paying bills, keeping your business afloat, and managing your home.

Another important incapacity document is your Advance Medical Directive. This is an absolutely essential document that allows you to name an authorized individual to make medical decisions on your behalf, should you become incapacitated due to injury or illness. As part of your Advance Medical Directive, you also can sign a HIPAA waiver which will allow your medical care professionals to discuss your condition and treatment with a designated individual. Without this HIPAA authorization, your medical care providers will not be able to discuss your medical condition and treatment with your loved ones.

Take Estate Planning Step-by-Step 

In total, these five steps may seem like a whole lot, but taken step-by-step, they are an absolutely achievable New School Year goal, even for the busiest of parents. With an experienced, compassionate estate planning attorney by your side, we are confident that you can finally cross this big, important “To Do” off your Back to School list. Give Brian M. Douglas & Associates a call to take that first step.