It's an uncomfortable subject for a lot of people, but estate planning is of vital importance. It lets you ensure that your assets are distributed as you intend and also can prevent loved ones from paying unnecessary costs. Having your affairs in order can ensure that your wishes are adhered to in terms of life support. While laws are similar throughout the United States, there are provisions unique to Alaska. Here's an overview.
Writing a will
A will outlines who receives what assets. If you have children, it can establish custody after you death. You also name an executor—someone who's legally responsible for seeing that your wishes are adhered to. If you need to update your will, you can either file a codicil or draft an entirely new document. In Alaska wills can be filed with the court, though they don't have to be.
Probate is the legal process of settling an estate. Whether you write a will or not, your heirs likely will wind up in probate court, but having a will can save them time and legal fees. It is also possible, though procedures such as living trusts, joint ownership and transferring property while you're alive, to protect many assets from being tied up in probate. Alaskan estates valued at less than $15,000 can be settled under a greatly simplified probate procedure that lets heirs or debtors file affidavits 30 days after the death.
Power of attorney
Your estate planning should include a power of attorney document outlining who has the authority to handle your legal affairs should you become incapacitated and clearly spell out at what point the power of attorney would apply. You also can decide which powers to grant: Can your designee sign contracts or just pay bills?
Health care decisions
So-called "living wills" or other advance directives set out how you want to be cared for if you can't make that decision yourself. Do you want life support measures, such as a feeding tube or breathing help? Alaska Legal Services Corp. has a comprehensive booklet you can review that covers many important points, including forms for creating your own document.
At a minimum it's a good idea to let loved ones know your wishes for burial or cremation—this can be done either in a will or in a last letter of instruction. People who haven't registered as organ donors should let family know what they want on that count as well. Many people go further, buying burial plots or pre-paying for funeral services. Prepaid services, however, often don't cover all costs and can fail to keep up with inflation.
From pets to businesses, other issues could crop up. Most people won't have to worry about estate taxes—the exemption is more than $5 million—though even small business owners should consider creating succession plans. Life insurance also should be considered, particularly for families with young children who would need to replace income or provide for child care should one parent die.
This article is intended as an overview of estate planning. For advice about your specific situation, contact an Alaska estate planning lawyer.