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Before it's too late

Personal Finance | Three key steps in estate planning

Issue: "Shattered dreams," April 5, 2008

Many people find estate planning uncomfortable. Accepting mortality is hard for all of us, but proper financial planning demands it. Frequently, individuals tend to view estate planning as a mere financial exercise: what assets to give to whom, and under what conditions-but providing for the transfer of financial assets is only one piece of the puzzle.

My last column laid out five key questions a believer ought to ask himself when beginning to plan for his estate, and then referred to a revocable living trust as a potential part of estate planning. While this instrument is a powerful tool for many people, it is not necessary for all. Other elements to a complete estate plan ought to include:

1. A will

Even with a living trust, a legally valid will is an important document to complete. It deals with the distribution of assets that may not have been covered in a trust. If your legal and financial advisors deem a trust unnecessary, a will becomes the document that defines who your beneficiaries (those receiving your assets) will be, and under what conditions they will receive them. It also names an executor to oversee these affairs after your passing.

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A will does something else that is crucially important to many Christians: It allows for the naming of guardians for children who are not yet adults. Without a legally appointed guardian, the Christian is at the will of the court to appoint a guardian after the death of the parents. Many Christians will want to specify a particular person (or couple) who they feel matches their own value system and philosophy of parenting. To die without such a legally declared selection is very dangerous.

2. Asset power of attorney

While wills and trusts appoint an executor (in the case of a will), and a trustee (in the case of a trust), both of these individuals do not begin performing their appointed tasks until the death of the person creating the document. However, many people become incapacitated, so this document appoints a trusted loved one to handle your legal and financial matters in the event that you are not physically or mentally able to do so on your own.

Paying bills, writing checks, filing tax returns, and making investment decisions are just some examples of tasks that could become necessary while you are laid up in bed, hospitalized, or worse. This simple document grants the legal authority necessary to see to it that your affairs are addressed in the case of a medical emergency.

3. Health-care directive

While it is outside my scope to delve into issues of medical ethics, one of the key documents in estate planning is the health-care directive (often called a durable health-care power of attorney). Just as an individual will want to grant financial authority to a trusted loved one in the case of an emergency, an individual needs to grant authority over various health-care and end-of-life decisions to a trusted loved one as well.

For some of the more difficult aspects of this decision, consult with your pastor or a spiritual confidant before making final decisions. The important thing is that your preferences and principles related to organ donation, attempts to prolong life, etc., need to be laid out in a legal document so as to avoid confusion or disarray for your family. For many, by the time these documents are needed it is too late to be able to have them drafted and executed. Plan ahead, and do so with much prayer and reflection.

This article concludes a series on the major categories of financial planning (accumulation, preservation, and transfer). Future articles will deal with a variety of issues related to the subjects of personal finance, stewardship, and investing. If there are particular areas you would like to see WORLD address, please send your ideas to mailbag@worldmag.com.

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