By Corinne Cantwell Heggie, Expert Contributor for Glenview Living
To prepare yourself for estate planning, it helps to reimagine what estate planning preparedness looks like. In theory, this task may be or feel like an insurmountable mountain complicated with stress and emotions. Then, procrastination sets in and you will find yourself in great company. Caring.com's "2021 Wills and Estate Planning Study" found that two out of every three people still do not have documents such as a will. This is a stunning statistic especially given the pandemic's recent grip on our daily lives.
However, I'd like to flip the script on estate planning and make sure you are not a statistic because planning is much easier than you think. To plan, all you need to do is be ready and able to answer three questions:
What property do I own?
Who will help me make decisions about my property when I cannot decide for myself?
Whom do I give my property to when I can't use my property?
Arguably it does not matter which questions you can answer. Why? Because you just need to answer these questions before you no longer have the ability to do so due to incapacity, disability, or death. That said, why not start the beginning with Question 1.
In the last year, I have asked at least a hundred people to answer Question 1. The responses are diverse, as well they should be. The third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language devotes 4 inches to its definition of "property." Black's Law Dictionary's 7th edition contains two and a half single-spaced paged of 10-point font with legal definitions of the word "property." You can use any search engine to locate a definition of "property."
Simply put, property means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Do not let this fact disarm or deter you. Instead, ask yourself "what does property mean to me?"
You can begin to define your property by identifying it. Whether it is your condo, the home you own with your spouse, your savings account, your Apple stock, your grandchild's 529, your vintage poster collection, your Chai Bond, your mutual find, your pension, your Roth IRA, your 401(k) from your first job, your 403(b) from your last job, the vested interest in the business you sold, your First Communion cross, your car, your grandfather's coin collection, or your family's farmland, if you cannot identify your property, you cannot answer any questions about it.
If you do not define your property, you risk having your property defined by someone else. That someone else could be a family member, friend or judge who may not know anything about you, what you own and to whom you want your property to be given. That someone else may not want to be saddled with the task of defining your property.
What is more, if you don't answer Question 1 now, a treasure hunt is guaranteed when you cannot manage your property or are no longer living. Family, friends, business partners, and neighbors are left to open mail, to gain access to bank accounts and social media platforms, and to speak to your employees, employer, clients, accountants, and lawyers to unravel your life and identify your property. A treasure hunt such as this is not fun. Instead, it costs time, money and distress during what is already an emotional time.
Estate planning preparedness starts when you answer Question 1. Answering Question 1 will not be as hard or painful as you think. In fact, it may give you a sense of relief and peace of mind, the latter which remains at a premium for us all.
Corinne Cantwell Heggie and John E. Heggie are the principles of the Wochner Law Firm LLC in Northbrook. They protect individuals, families and business owners from asset loss, court battles and taxes with wills, trusts and powers of attorney. They appear in probate court is a judge has to decide where or to whom a decedent's property distributes. Corinne and John live in Glenview where their family is active in local government, ministries that support families in crisis at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Cub Scots and Boy Scout Troop 156.
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