Creating a plan for what happens when we become incapacitated or die, is a subject that makes most of us feel uncomfortable. An estate plan is not just for the wealthy, but an important part of being a good steward of what the Lord has entrusted to us.
The focus of this post is to help you understand the importance of estate planning, the issues it addresses and how to use it to honor the Lord.
I would strongly encourage you to find a Christian Attorney to help you consider your options more fully, but I hope this post will get you thinking about this important topic.
What is an Estate Plan?
The word estate simply means all the assets and possessions that you have when you pass away.
Having an estate plan is the only legal way to have your wishes made known and acted upon. A good estate plan will cover your incapacity (ie a car accident that leaves you unable to make your own decisions). It also covers where to send your money and possessions and who will care for your minor children when you die.
An estate plan really has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with those you leave behind. You can either leave a well thought out plan that will enable your family to grieve your passing and move on with life more easily, or you can leave your family with a mess that could lead to conflict and potentially a protracted legal battle.
Your estate plan is your final act of stewardship. In light of its importance, it is sobering that only 33% of Americans have an estate plan as of 2021.
Though much has changed since Biblical times, the foundation of what is called estate planning existed back then.
Wills were used to transfer assets, much as they are today as seen in Hebrews 9:16-17 “ For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.”
As our society has developed over time, planning has become more complex with various legal documents and processes. However, there are two key Biblical principles that should help guide you as you think about this subject:
A. God owns it all
Psalm 24:1 The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein
Your estate plan is the last opportunity to use what God has entrusted to you, for His glory. If God owns everything we have, what role does He have in your estate plan?
B. Provide for your family
1 Timothy 5:8 says “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Your family and loved ones are already grieving your passing and facing the reality that life will be different without you there. Establishing a well thought out estate plan, helps you provide for your family after you are gone. Are you leaving a mess or the best situation possible?
Finding a balance between these two principles will be different for each person. If you want to read more about this balance, here is a post that may be helpful.
Why Do I Need An Estate Plan?
There are three main reasons you need an estate plan:
1. Minor Children
If you have children under the age of 18, you need to have a Will drafted at the very least.
A Will is a legal document that allows you to appoint a Guardian for your minor children in case you die. If you don’t select a Guardian, then the state of Pennsylvania (if you live in PA) will try to find a relative to care for your child(ren).
Though you may want them to be raised with a certain family member, your Uncle who isn’t a believer and hasn’t spoken to you in 20 years may be the only one willing to take them. Even worse, if no one in your family will care for them, they may end up in foster care.
At a minimum, if you have minor children you NEED to plan for this.
2. Probate Costs
Probate is the public legal process of distributing assets. Normally, an Attorney is hired to help with this, and they charge by the hour or a percentage of the assets in the estate. The more you have in your estate the more probate will cost.
There are some assets that can be passed to others without going through probate (see more on this later), but if you don’t do this correctly, those assets will come back to your estate and go through probate.
Planning correctly for this reduces your costs.
3. Avoiding A Mess
Money causes people to act in funny ways. If you die and there is no plan in place, it can create a lot of drama and division for your family.
You can say that this won’t happen with your family, but the easiest way to prevent this, is to have a solid estate plan in place.
There are several important documents that serve as the foundation of your estate plan:
This is the legal document that establishes an Executor (a person who will implement your wishes after you die), a Guardian for minor children (who will raise them) and detailed instructions on who is to receive what assets.
If you live in the state of Pennsylvania and do not have a Will, Pennsylvania already has a plan in place to handle distributing your assets and caring for your children. The problem is, you don’t get a say in it.
Having a Will makes your wishes known so they can be acted upon.
Power of Attorney (POA)
This document appoints someone you trust to step in and make financial decisions and pay bills if you are incapacitated. If you don’t have a POA, it becomes very difficult for someone else to pay your mortgage etc.
Oftentimes, married couples name each other as their POA, but don’t name a secondary POA. As the couple travels together, it is important to have additional person listed as their POA in case they are involved in an accident.
Some financial institutions prefer to have your POA on file in advance to make the process smoother if you are incapacitated, while others don’t care. Contact them to see what they prefer.
This is the legal document that specifically states what measures will be used to extend your life, and it authorizes someone to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. Sometimes Attorneys will break these out in two separate documents, so be sure that you get both parts done.
This document gives you the chance to have your wishes met. Without it, the medical professionals will use all means available to extend your life (regardless of your quality of life).
There are many different types of Trusts, with varying purposes. Some are used to facilitate charitable giving, others to care for the financial needs of special needs children without impacting their government benefits, while others are meant to reduce probate expenses.
Many times people have Trusts, and they don’t even understand them. Once I had a new client meet with me and they had a Trust that was supposed to own a life insurance policy. However, there was no policy, and the client didn’t understand what I was talking about. In essence, they had paid money to establish a Trust, which was worthless since it wasn’t implemented correctly.
Some Attorneys encourage Trusts for all their clients, but it is not always necessary. Some Trusts have higher taxes and more burdensome ongoing requirements than other options.
If you are interested in a Trust, be sure to do your homework and talk with your financial advisor before creating one. Understand how the Trust works, how it will benefit you and what is required on an ongoing basis.
Before we discuss a Biblical application of estate planning, there are some important points for you to consider:
A. Estate and Inheritance Taxes
Besides Probate, the other two major expenses of an estate are estate and inheritance taxes. Generally, taxes are only paid by people who inherit money/possessions who are not spouses.
Estates in the US currently do not pay Federal estate taxes unless they are worth more than $11,700,000 (as of 2021). This number changes over time, and it used to be significantly lower. While most people don’t have that much in assets, you still need to check on this periodically as it will change.
If you have a life insurance policy, the proceeds will pass to the beneficiary income tax free at the Federal level. But the policy death benefit is counted as a part of your estate for Federal estate tax purposes. So, if someone has a large policy, it could push their overall estate over the limit and result in estate taxes for the amount above the $11,700,000 (currently taxed at 40%).
Inheritance taxes in Pennsylvania are based off the relationship between you and the person who died. The further removed you are from the person who died the higher the tax rate. However, the inheritance tax rates in Pennsylvania are much lower than the Federal estate tax.
B. Will vs Named Beneficiaries
There are two ways to transfer assets to beneficiaries:
Your Will covers any assets that do not have a named beneficiary. Your house, car, savings account, investment account etc can all potentially be distributed via your Will. Any asset distributed by the Will, goes through Probate (the legal process of identifying and distributing assets). As mentioned above, there is a cost for this, so it is generally best to limit the amount of assets that pass via the Will.
A Trust may help reduce your probate expenses, but it can add other complexities and costs depending on the option selected. For the purposes of this post, we won’t delve into them, but you will want to discuss this further with an Attorney if you are interested in minimizing Probate expenses.
2. Named Beneficiaries
For specific accounts/policies you can leave them directly to individuals or charities, by completing a beneficiary election (or similar) form. Once you pass away, your Executor will notify the company(ies) of your passing, and the assets will be distributed directly to whomever is listed on your account, without passing through probate.
Usually there is no cost (or a minimal cost) to establish or change your beneficiaries.
You can have named beneficiaries on your 401(k)/403(b), IRA’s, life insurance policies, bank accounts (Payable on Death) and taxable investment accounts (Transfer on Death).
There are three practical considerations to note:
A. Cash – You need to make sure you have at least some cash that is not in a named beneficiary account, so your Executor can pay your estate’s final expenses.
Since assets in named beneficiary accounts are distributed fairly quickly after death, it may leave the estate with no cash. This could leave the Executor paying the final bills out of their own pocket.
B. Your beneficiary election overrides your Will – Whatever your Will says, has no impact on these assets. If your Will says to give everything to your son, but you filled out your IRA beneficiary form to leave the funds to your cat Fluffy, then Fluffy will be getting your IRA.
C. If not maintained, then it can be useless – If all of your beneficiaries die before you and you don’t elect new ones (fill out and submit the paperwork), then the assets will go back to your Estate to be distributed via your Will. The assets will go through probate, and miss out on the savings they could have enjoyed.
A God Honoring Focus
In light of all we have discussed, how can you establish a plan that honors the Lord?
1. Be Responsible
Take the time to consider your options and get your plan in place.
2. Discipling Children
You are responsible for raising your children in the ways of the Lord. Ensure they are raised in the faith if you die.
3. Limit Leakage
Taxes and probate costs can add up and sap assets from your estate. An important stewardship responsibility is to monitor changes and adjust your plan as needed. Would you prefer your estate to write a larger check to the government or to a charity/your family?
Decide what your balance will be between providing for your family and giving to the Lord (here is a blog post that discusses this subject in more detail). Do your children need the funds? Are they prepared to handle the assets in a way that honors the Lord? Will you also be giving to the Lord’s priorities?
However the Lord leads you, explain your plan to your loved ones. Oftentimes we tend not to speak about money or death, but that can leave confusion and anger to those you leave behind. Explaining your thought process can help preserve your important relationships.
6. Your Spouse
One of you is more involved in the finances, than the other. What happens if the one who handles the finances dies? Frequently, this leaves the surviving spouse struggling to understand how to pay bills, where accounts are etc. It is extremely important to involve your spouse in the finances and…
7. Be Organized
Keep a list of important financial information and contact information in a safe place. Having this information greatly helps those tasked with carrying out your wishes, and saves them a lot of time.
Tax laws etc will change, beneficiaries die, and relationships falter. Periodically you may need to adjust your plan.
Your estate plan is not really about money, but about relationships. When a plan isn’t in place, it can cause relationships to crumble as money squabbles develop. Making a plan can help preserve those relationships and encourage those left behind to keep their focus on the Lord rather than material possessions.
Though the topic can be intimidating, it really is about providing a gift of certainty and clarity to those you leave behind. I hope you will take the time to work on your plan today.
Points to Consider
1. If you have children under 18 years old, get a Will establishing a Guardian within the next 30 days.
2. Have each aspect of your plan work together to meet your wishes.
3. If you wait until your estate plan covers all contingencies, it will not happen.
4. Once established, revisit your plan every few years to ensure laws haven’t change, everyone is still alive and willing to help. Review your beneficiaries, and adjust as needed.
5. Ask yourself this question: Is your estate plan about your priorities or God’s?