Estate Planning 101

Kristin Smith, associate director, joined the Office of Gift Planning staff in January 2016. Previously she was a trust-and-estate-planning associate attorney at Perkins Coie LLP, where she focused on drafting estate planning documents for high-net-worth individuals and families and on assisting clients with charitable giving.

Why is estate planning different from simply drafting a will?

A will is a public document that is part of an estate plan. An estate planning attorney can identify common issues and in some cases create trusts that detail more private wishes that may be sensitive to you or your heirs. Some of those issues might include blended families, predeceased beneficiaries, family drug or alcohol problems, complicated family relationships, and Medicaid planning opportunities.

An overall estate plan includes documents beyond a will, like powers of attorney for property and health care, a living will, a revocable trust, beneficiary designations, instructions to retitle assets, and possibly irrevocable trusts.

What is one thing you wish people knew about estate planning?

Once your estate plan is in place, don’t forget about it. Verify that it reflects your intentions. Small changes can be easy to make and inexpensive to maintain.

What are some tips to get started in planning an estate?

Create a plan for your digital assets. Make a list of your important passwords and online accounts, and find a safe place to store it—either on paper or in a central location that allows entry into your digital life. Such assets include online banking, social media, rewards points, and file storage accounts. Discuss these items with your attorney so that provisions are included in the power of attorney for property, will, and trust that enable fiduciaries to have access to those accounts.

Keep your beneficiary designations up to date. Make sure that you designate beneficiaries for all of your retirement accounts, and keep those designations current. If you get divorced, have a child, or lose a loved one, you may unknowingly create unintended heirs or designate someone who is already deceased. Remember that beneficiary designations trump whoever else may be mentioned as receiving that asset in a will or a trust.

Stay current on titling or retitling assets. Assets like cars or real estate do not have designated beneficiaries. Talk to your attorney to make certain your assets are titled to maximize the benefits of your estate plan. Keep the original titles in a safe place.

Maintain a list of your assets and be organized. By keeping good files, you can reduce stress at a time of grief and minimize family conflict when estate responsibilities kick in. Your executor can focus on what is important when settling your estate.

Our free estate planning organizer can help you get started. For more assistance, contact the Office of Gift Planning at 866.241.9802 or giftplan@uchicago.edu.