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Estate Planning Essentials for Bad (and Good) Times

  • Stephen Bloom Contributor
  • 2010 22 Oct
Estate Planning Essentials for Bad (and Good) Times


You're bumped, you're bounced, you're battered, you're bruised. Markets are up, markets are down. Jobs are lost, jobs are found. The economy is enough to make your heart skip and your head spin. Nobody knows what happens next. Nothing seems safe. It's easy to feel overwhelmed, even paralyzed. Is there anything you can do to restore peace of mind? Is there shelter in the storm?

Of course, God gave us scriptures for times like these, to remind us of the true essentials. It wasn't for nothing Jesus warned us against putting our faith in possessions and wealth. God knows financial investments and income come and go, taking wings like eagles and flying away. And God wants us to understand that real security and stability are found only in him. So re-committing your full trust to God is the first and most important step toward finding calm amidst the chaos.

But once you're right with God, there are some other simple preparations you can make to help your family stay on course in a turbulent economy. Because, amazingly, history proves that even in spite of booms and busts, bubbles and crashes, expansions and depressions, life goes on! Brides and grooms keep exchanging marriage vows, sons and daughters are born, children get older, families grow and change, and some of us depart this life for the next. None of this stops, even in the craziest of economic seasons, so planning the orderly disposition of your estate (the money and property you own, however much or little) is always a step toward good stewardship and financial peace.

And for most people, the key elements of a sound and sensible estate plan can be simple and straightforward. These things certainly won't bring you peace without God, but they can be an important part of your faithful stewardship of the material legacy God has blessed you with, no matter what economic windfalls or calamities you face:

1) Make a Will. A will tells the world how you want your stuff divided up when your life is finished. And it tells the world who you want to be in charge of that process. A properly drawn will can save your loved ones from confusion, dispute, and delay, and from the unnecessary expense those things often impose. Your will can include gifts to churches and charities you care about, and all sorts of other provisions to reflect your personality, faith, and preferences. In some states, a trust may be a better alternative than a will, so make sure to ask a qualified lawyer which would be best for you.

2) Make a Durable Power of Attorney. Statistics show that many of us will end up physically or mentally incapacitated, either temporarily or permanently, at some point during our lives. A durable power of attorney tells the world who you want to legally speak for you in all your affairs if and when you can no longer communicate for yourself. And, like a will, a properly drawn durable power of attorney will often save your loved ones from unnecessary grief and expense.

3) Consider a Life Decision Document. What if you face an illness or injury that leaves you unable to communicate for yourself and medically unlikely to recover? Christians can and do disagree on the morally correct approach in these difficult situations, but if you create a properly drawn life decision document now, you can spare your family from the agony of guessing (or even litigating) your wishes when a terminal medical crisis arrives. My own leaning is toward a Will to Live, which expresses a preference for life, rather than a Living Will, which essentially authorizes death. But the decision is one for you and God and the key is to put it in writing now, so your loved ones aren't forced to someday speculate on what you would have wanted.   

4) Double-check Your Beneficiaries and Co-Owners. Many estate plans are wrecked because folks don't coordinate the beneficiaries named in their life insurance policies and retirement plans with their other estate planning documents. And many estate plans are wrecked because folks don't realize that co-owned assets, such as real estate and bank accounts, become the property of surviving co-owners at death. So even though your will says your property goes to certain people, if others are named as beneficiaries on your policies and plans, or co-owners on your title documents, your will is essentially negated. Make sure you double-check to be sure your beneficiary designations and joint ownerships match up with the rest of your estate plan!

5) Consult a Lawyer. I am often a vocal critic of the legal profession and the despicable things my fellow lawyers sometimes do. But I also recognize the value of qualified and ethical legal counsel, especially in the area of estate planning. There are intricacies and nuances in the law that even an intelligent well-informed non-lawyer will overlook. Your estate plan can be undermined by some arcane detail of your state's law that a qualified attorney would spot easily. So even if you think you've got your estate plan completely covered, even if you've used a do-it-yourself legal document service, it will be well worth the time and fees involved to have the whole plan carefully reviewed by a good lawyer. Really.

October 17, 2009

Stephen L. Bloom, J.D., teaches economics and personal finance at Messiah College. He is a consultant at the United Methodist Stewardship Foundation of Central Pennsylvania and an estate planning and transactional attorney at the Pennsylvania law firm of Irwin & McKnight, P.C.  A frequent media guest and speaker, he is author of The Believer's Guide to Legal Issues (2008, Living Ink Books).