Estate planning: More than just a will
By Scaringi & Scaringi P.C.
Facing our own mortality is never pleasant and having to make decisions about how you want to be treated in your last days can be downright scary.
But even worse could be not taking the proper steps and sowing the seeds for confusion and conflict later, said Melanie Walz Scaringi, an experienced estate attorney with Scaringi & Scaringi P.C. in Harrisburg. In addition to a will, a proper estate plan should include a power of attorney, a health care power of attorney and a living will.
“I have clients who come in and actually sigh in relief after everything is set,’’ Scaringi says. “Many say, ‘I was afraid to think about this, but now that I’ve done it, I feel so much better.’’’
- Perhaps the hardest part of the process is rounding up all the documents you need, Scaringi says. Be prepared to gather: deeds for any homes and property; divorce decrees and any pre- or postnuptial agreements; financial information about bank accounts, stocks, life insurance and other holdings; and any titles for vehicles, mobile homes, boats or trailers.
- Decide who you trust to carry out your wishes – and it’s not always the same person for everything. Scaringi says she’s had clients who know one child would be good at handling the financial details while someone else, even a friend, may be the one to trust with making medical decisions.
- Figure out what you want to do with your assets after death. Who should benefit: children, grandchildren, charities, faith groups? Will assets be distributed immediately or put into a trust with the money to be paid later?
After the documents are collected and you know who will handle your affairs, it’s time for the documents:
- Financial power of attorney: This gives someone the ability to write checks, pay bills and make financial decisions on your behalf. Even if you have a spouse, should you become incapacitated and big decisions need to be made, such as selling a house with both your names on the deed, that won’t be possible without a financial POA. Too many times families without a POA are forced to go through an expensive court process to get guardianship, Scaringi says.
- Health care power of attorney and living will: Many times both of these are in the same document and Scaringi says the same person should oversee both. The health care POA allows the person you select to make decisions about your care if you’re incapacitated. The living will section states what measures should – and should not be – taken to keep you alive. Do you want a feeding tube and an IV to give your body food and water? Do you want machines doing your breathing? Or do you only want your body to be kept comfortable and allow death to take its course? “If you don’t have a living will, they’ll do everything to keep you alive and by that I mean keep your body alive,’’ Scaringi says. “Without a living will, you could be in a vegetative state and live on a machine the rest of your life.’’
- Will: This is the disbursement of assets to heirs and beneficiaries – the legacy that remains. Whether the assets go into trusts for long-term management can depend on the beneficiaries’ circumstances, such as age, disabilities, or money-management capabilities. “In many ways the financial part is easier to figure out, whereas with the healthcare, you really need to know how the person you select feels about all this.’’
Scaringi recommends choosing at least three people to carry out your wishes and you can list the order in which they are selected – so if one is unavailable, there is someone else to step in. She also stresses that it’s not only older people that need these documents – having these documents are just as important for younger people, especially those with their own families.
Lastly, Scaringi advises against trying to set everything up with one of the do-it-yourself kits advertised on TV or online. Many times they don’t account for Pennsylvania law and may actually end up costing more in the end.
“It’s worth it to spend a little money up front and know that everything has been done right,’’ Scaringi said. “Many times even the little tweaks we do to an estate plan can save a lot of money for the heirs after a person dies.’’