To truly prepare yourself for estate planning, you have to re-imagine what estate planning preparedness looks like. In theory, this task may be an insurmountable hurdle laden with emotion, stress, denial, fear and procrastination. After all, according to Caring.com’s 2020 Estate Planning and Wills Study, the number of adult Americans that have a will or another type of estate planning document has decreased by nearly 25% since 2017. So, you’d be, and likely remain in good company.
However, in practice, you should be ready and able to answer three questions:
1. What property do you own?
2. Who will help you make decisions about your property when you cannot?
3. Who do you want to have your property?
Arguably it does not matter which questions you can answer, just that you are able to answer the questions before you no longer have the capacity to do so. That said, let’s tackle question 1.
In the last 3 months, I have asked at least a hundred people to answer question 1. The responses are stunningly diverse, as well they should be. The third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language devotes 4 inches to its definition of “property.” Black’s Law Dictionary’s 7th edition contains two and half single-spaced pages of 10-point font with legal definitions of the word “property.” You can use any search engine to find definitions of “property” offered by Wikipedia, Dictionary.com and Investopedia.
Simply put, property means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Do not let this fact disarm or deter you. Instead, ask yourself “what does property mean to me?”
You can begin to define your property by identifying it. Whether it is your condo, the home you own with your spouse, your savings account, your Apple stock, your grandchild’s 529, your vintage poster collection, your Chai Bond, your mutual fund, your pension, your Roth IRA, your 401(k) from your first job, your 403(b) from your last job, the vested interest in the business you sold, your First Communion cross, your car, your grandfather’s coin collection, or your family’s farmland, if you cannot identify your property, you cannot answer any questions about it.
If you do not define your property, your property will be defined by a family member, friend or judge who may not know anything about you or what you own. Answering question 1 probably will not be as emotional, scary or painful as you think. In fact, it may give you a sense of control, which may very well remain at a premium in 2021.
• Corinne Cantwell Heggie is a principal of the Wochner Law Firm LLC in Northbrook. Corinne helps people avoid asset loss, court battles and taxes, with wills, trusts and powers of attorney. Corinne lives in Glenview with her husband and law partner where her family is active in sports, ministries that support women and children in crisis, and Boy Scouts.