Though estate planning can be a difficult topic to broach, it is vitally important that most people over the age of 18 give the matter some consideration. Planning helps your loved ones avoid protracted, expensive legal battles and helps ensure that your wishes are followed. Most states have similar laws, though New York differs in some details.
Writing your will
Your will directs survivors as to how you want estate assets divided. If you have minor children, you can use your will to establish guardianship. You will need to identify an executor who will take legal responsibility for ensuring that debts are paid and assets are distributed as you wish. You can write your own will—New York even recognizes hand-written wills, though it takes longer for such wills to be established as valid because a judge must verify the signature. However, have an estate planning attorney review the document can ensure that it is in proper order. In New York, wills must be witnessed by two adults.
Even if you write a will, your estate will have to go through the probate process in Surrogate's Court to ensure that your debts and taxes are paid and your assets are divided . New York has an expedited probate process for those with less than $20,000 in assets and no real estate. If you die without a will and have few assets, your family might be able to avoid probate because under the law, spouses or children automatically inherit. You also can avoid probate by taking steps such as trusts, property transfer and joint ownership.
Power of attorney
Granting someone power of attorney lets them take care of your affairs if you cannot. The document can be narrow, limiting powers to handling routine finances, or broad, allowing assets to be bought or sold. Either way, you should make sure that the person you appoint is aware of you general wishes. You can create a medical power of attorney that lets someone make health care decisions if you become incapacitated..
Health care decisions
Advance directives set up arrangements for health care decisions to be made if you are unable. In New York, you can create two types of advance directives: a living will that spells out what type of care you want and under what circumstances, or a health care proxy, which designates someone to make such decisions for you if you are incapacitated.
A will or letter of final instruction can be used to spell out funeral wishes—cremation, burial or donating your body for research are among the options. If you wish to donate your organs, make sure loved ones know you have registered. Prepaid funeral arrangements can be convenient for loved ones, but such plans sometimes fail to cover costs after inflation. New York has laws designed to try to protect consumers from such problems.
You will not have to be concerned with estate taxes unless you have more than $5 million in assets. If you own a small business, though, make sure you create a succession plan to keep things running after your death. If a surviving spouse or children would struggle financially, consider a life insurance policy to temporarily replace the lost income. You also can take care of charities or pets by writing provisions into your will.
This article is a general overview of estate planning. Contact a New York estate planning lawyer for questions about your specific situation.