It can be difficult to discuss estate planning, but it is vitally important that most people over the age of 18 consider the matter. Proper planning ensures your wishes are followed and helps your loved ones avoid protracted, expensive legal battles. Laws are similar in most states, but New Jersey differs in some details.
Writing a Will
A will is a document that allows your survivors to determine how you want assets divided. If you have minor children, a will can settle custody or guardianship matters. It identifies an executor who will be legally responsible for paying debts and distributing remaining assets according to your wishes. You can write your own will, and New Jersey even recognizes handwritten wills though experts caution it takes longer for such wills to be established as valid because a judge must verify the signature. An estate planning attorney can help by making sure the document is phrased correctly and in proper order to protect your loved ones from a long ordeal after your death. In New Jersey wills must be witnessed by two adults.
Even if you write a will, your estate will have to go through the probate process. That is the term for the legal procedure that ensures all your debts and taxes are paid and all your assets are divided. New Jersey has a checklist of probate issues your executor will be responsible for overseeing. A will can smooth the path when probate is necessary, as can other mechanisms such as trusts, joint ownership, or transferring property while you are alive. The only way to avoid probate in New Jersey is to die with no assets.
Power of Attorney
Granting someone power of attorney authorizes that person to take care of your business if you become incapacitated. The document can be as narrow or as sweeping as you want it to be. You can limit the powers to handling routine finances or you can allow assets to be bought or sold.
Advance directives clearly set out your wishes when it comes to medical care. You can create a medical power of attorney that allows someone to make health-care decisions for you if you cannot. In New Jersey, you can create two types of advance directives: An instructive directive, which spells out what type of care you want and under what circumstances and a proxy directive, which appoints someone to make such decisions for you.
You can spell out funeral arrangements in a will or letter of final instruction. Cremation, burial, or donating your body for research are among the options to discuss with loved ones. Potential organ donors should make sure loved ones know they have registered as a donor. Prepaid funeral arrangements can be convenient for your heirs at a stressful time, but they might not always cover the complete costs after inflation. New Jersey has laws designed to protect consumers from such problems.
Unless you have more than $5 million in assets, you won't be subject to estate taxes, though even small business owners need to create a succession plan that will protect employees and family members. If a surviving spouse or children might struggle financially after your death, consider a life insurance policy that would temporarily replace some of the lost family income. You can also donate to charities or make sure your pets are taken care of by writing such provisions into your will.
This article is intended as a general overview of estate planning. Contact a New Jersey estate planning lawyer for questions about your specific situation.