Even if you have no heirs, you should have an estate plan. Otherwise, the state will determine the fate of your worldly possessions. In fact, if you pass away “intestate” (without a will), the state can even keep all of your assets for itself – if no heirs are found.
The most basic tenet of no-heir estate planning is to write a will. Every state has different rules about what constitutes a legally enforceable will, so be sure to check out your state’s guidelines. If you move, you’ll need to update your will according to the state you live in when you pass away.
In your will, direct who receives which of your assets. There is no edict that says you must leave possessions to a relative. You can choose a friend, a group of people, or even one or more charitable organizations. You also should choose an executor of your will: someone you trust to carry out your wishes. This person can be an attorney or bank custodian of your assets. You should speak with whomever you choose to make sure they are willing to take on the role of executor. It is generally no small task and might entail distributing and even selling your possessions in order to make cash distributions to the beneficiaries.
If you have any pets, be sure to figure out during the planning process who is willing to take care of your animals after you pass, or direct their care to a specific shelter.
Also, consider the beneficiaries you will designate for bank and investment accounts, as well as any insurance policies you own. Note that beneficiary designations you assign on these accounts will supersede your will instructions, even if they precede when you wrote your will. For example, your employer might pay for a life insurance policy in your name that pays out proceeds equaling two to three times your salary. You might not even remember that you completed this paperwork years ago, naming your girl/boyfriend at the time as your beneficiary. If you don’t keep those designations up to date, you may end up leaving a substantial sum to a woman/man who broke your heart, instead of the person who embraces it now.
It is also a good idea to name a “Transfer on Death” (TOD) designation on other types of accounts, such as your bank checking and savings accounts. This designation also supersedes will instructions and allows your money to be distributed once the beneficiary presents your death certificate and proper ID. It’s actually advisable to name the executor of your will as TOD, as he may need to access your funds quickly to pay for funeral and burial expenses. Other assets can take longer to distribute, so a TOD designation is a quicker way for your beneficiary to access cash.
Be aware that even if you have prepared a will, your estate will still be subject to probate, in which a judge makes the final determination of your assets. If you wish to avoid this step, you can fold all or a portion of your assets under one or more trusts, which will distribute them according to the trust directions and avoid probate altogether. A trust is particularly beneficial if you have a large estate or wish to leave a substantial donation to one or more charities.
Another estate planning consideration is what to do if, instead of dying, you become incapacitated and cannot make decisions for yourself. As part of the estate planning process, you should name a power of attorney to make financial decisions for you. This can be anyone – a friend or close neighbor, or the person you name as executor of your will.
You should also establish a living will, advanced care directive, and/or healthcare proxy. A living will is a directive that states your wishes regarding medical care should you become incapacitated (e.g., permanently unconscious). An advanced care directive can be more specific, such as establishing a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order if your breathing or heartbeat stops, and if you would like to donate tissues or organs after you pass.
A healthcare proxy, which may be referred to as a medical or durable power of attorney, is the assignment of a person who will make all of your healthcare decisions when you no longer can. Note that with medical instructions as well, states have varying guidelines. It’s important to be familiar with your state’s requirements and update your medical care directives if you relocate to another state.