For the vast majority of folks doing estate planning, a core goal is to see that significant assets are distributed to beneficiaries and preserved. That seems like a simple task. You can hire an estate planning attorney, draw up appropriate documents, and sign them.
What protects those assets after they are transferred, though? Asset protection is an often-overlooked aspect of estate planning, but here are four ways you can address it.
A basic tool for protecting some assets is to place them in trusts. This is especially important if a beneficiary of your estate has long-term needs. If you're worried about a surviving spouse who requires ongoing medical care, for example, you might configure a trust for the express purpose of providing that care.
This will reduce the risk that government agencies, creditors, or unscrupulous parties can easily access the funds or assets within the trust. Likewise, it removes some of the administrative worries for the beneficiary.
Payment of the Debts and Taxes of the Estate
In the early days of an estate, creditors and tax agencies are among the most likely parties to take control of assets. Until the estate settles its obligations, these parties will have the standing to ask the court to seize assets and accounts. The court can then order the liquidation or transfer of the assets to those parties to satisfy the obligations.
While this seems like a simple issue to settle, it gets tricky. People carry debts while living their lives, and they have to pay taxes each year. Unless they're highly confident of when they might pass, it's hard to settle all of the outstanding obligations.
A common solution is to maintain some assets for the purpose of settling estate debts. For example, someone might own several rental properties. The executor could sell the properties and use the proceeds to then satisfy the debts and taxes.
Most states allow an estate to exempt some or all of the value of a primary residence. Such exemptions vary dramatically among the states, and it's best to ask an estate planning attorney what the rules are in yours. Even if it is the most limited exemption, usually one protecting the property against outstanding medical bills, this can make a major difference.
If a court enters a civil judgment against you or your estate, the judgment may come out of the assets. Obtain liability insurance for your homeowner's insurance policy. If you run a business, do the same on that front.