Don’t wait until it’s too late for estate planning

By Curtis A. Parker
Special to the Herald Union

Estate planning: Estate Planning is nothing more than contingency planning, requiring the same care and attention one would give to planning any operation. The big distinction for estate planning is the contingency concerned, your death, will happen, and rarely on a predictable or convenient schedule.

You can prepare for it. It is wise to create an estate plan as soon as possible or to review it whenever you encounter a major life event. Such events include marriage, divorce, birth, death, acquisition of property or investments and redeployment.

Estate plan: A person’s estate is all the property he or she owns, which might include real estate, bank accounts, investments and other assets, plus property of a more personal nature such as clothing, furniture, jewelry or other household items. An estate plan is a series of documents or laws declaring how and to whom a person’s estate will be distributed. Having an estate plan allows a person to determine ahead of time how his or her assets will be distributed upon death.

The estate plan can also provide instructions in the case of a person’s mental incapacitation, managing one’s financial affairs through the proper use of powers of attorney, providing for health care with advance directives such as durable powers of attorney for health care, and making wishes known regarding life support through a living will.

A good estate plan can minimize taxes imposed on an estate in order to leave as much as possible to beneficiaries.

The estate planning documents include the will, maybe a trust, health care documents, beneficiary designation on bank accounts, investments (such as the Thrift Savings Plan), life insurance policies (such as SGLI), and DD Form 93. Deeds to real estate and other documents of property ownership must be reviewed to ensure they will pass as desired. A good estate plan will also include a review of any separation agreements and divorce decrees to ensure all obligations are addressed.

Use of a will: A will is a document that gives clear instructions to a personal representative, or executor, about how to distribute assets when a person dies. A will is created during life, but takes effect upon the death of the person who created it, known as the testator.

Use of a testamentary trust: Testamentary trusts transfer property into a trust upon the death of the testator through a will that provides for such a transfer. Since the trust isn’t created until the testator death, the property is still subject to probate, but a testamentary trust may serve many other useful purposes. For instance, a trust can be used to control how and when a beneficiary will receive funds.

Living will and power of attorney: Including a plan for incapacitation or inability to care for oneself when drafting an estate plan is a common and wise measure. There are several types of documents that are used for this purpose. A financial power of attorney, sometimes called a durable power of attorney for finances, designates a person called the agent who will control an incapacitated person’s finances on their behalf. A financial power of attorney ends on the death of its creator, who is called the principal.

Another common planning tool is an advance health care directive, which is a document that deals with medical plans and decisions. Advance directives normally consist of two documents. The first, a durable power of attorney for health care, gives another person, called a proxy or health care agent, the power to make medical decisions in the event a person is unable to do so him or herself.  The second, a living will, provides medical instructions in the event a party is incapable of making his or her wishes known.

General and special powers of attorney: In addition to the powers of attorney mentioned above, it may prove beneficial to give someone (spouse or trusted friend) the ability to perform certain acts on your behalf while you are deployed. This can be done through the use of a power of attorney.

A Special Power of Attorney is limited to a specific purpose (for example, selling your car) and often to a limited term. A General Power of Attorney is broad.

Your Legal Assistance Office can help you determine which powers of attorney are appropriate for your particular situation.

For more information contact the Legal Assistance Office in Building 1023N on Clay Kaserne at mil 337-4725, civ (0611) 705-4725 or online at