5 Estate Planning Moves For Those Without Heirs

By David Sterman
April 15, 2011

The whole point of estate planning is to leave your children and spouse in as strong a position as possible in case you die. But that doesn't mean that those without a spouse or children need not bother.

On the contrary, settling all of your personal matters will prove to be quite burdensome for whatever friend or relative takes on the task. You may be around another 50 years, or you may be gone tomorrow, so you may as well set up a plan right now. As the Beatles once sang "Tomorrow Never Knows."

Would That There's a Will

1. The first, and most crucial step is to establish a will. It should spell out -- in very explicit detail -- how you want your estate to be handled, from the funeral ceremony, to how you want your assets distributed. Your will should list every account number representing all of your investments and loans.

You can go to an attorney that can provide clear counsel as to how to structure a will that is right for your situation. Or you can go to web sites such as Nolo.com or Legalzoom.com to download the right forms, which start at around $40. Remember that you'll need to get it notarized, and should make sure that someone has an easily-accessed copy.

2. Identify a Power of Attorney. Well before you spin off this mortal coil, you may become incapacitated. In that event, a friend or family member will need to be entrusted to oversee your care and your financial matters.

If you have located the right person, sit down with them and discuss your intentions, giving them the opportunity to decline the role. It's a big responsibility, and not for everyone. This person will be entrusted to act in your best financial interest at all times, so be sure that they have the background and experience to do so.

3. Draw up a list of beneficiaries. This is a good time to start getting to know well-run charities. In my experience, some charities are very effective at making sure that donated funds are truly directed to helping the cause. Other charities seem to be a vehicle for enriching its key executives. (As a personal rule of thumb, I ask for executive non-compensation at non-profits. If the key players are making $200,000 to $300,000 a year, then I move on to another charity).

Once you've found the right charities, figure out how you'd like to split the proceeds of your estate with relatives such as nieces and nephews and those charities.

4. Keep it simple and up-to-date. A friend of mine has spent the last six months sorting out the estate of a sibling that suddenly died with vague estate instructions. My friend has been dealing with a range of lawyers, bankers and IRS agents to sort through all of the assets and liabilities.

His sibling failed to keep his will current, and my friend is now pulling his hair out trying to make sure that all is handled correctly. You should look at your will once a year, and have it re-notarized every five years, to be sure it's up-to-date.

5. Continually re-assess your needs. As you age, the amount of money you'll need to live comfortably until life's end may diminish. You may soon have more than you'll ever really need. For example, someone in their 70's with several million dollars in assets is unlikely to ever run out. That's why some people start to wind down their estate while they're still alive. 

You can give up to $13,000 to friends or family without paying any taxes. You can begin to make automatic payments to a favorite charity. Some people own several homes for investment purposes. For the sake of simplicity, it may be wise for someone that is elderly to start selling some of those properties so that the eventual settling of the estate becomes a far simpler process.

Facing theses issues is unpleasant, which is why most of us put them off. Yet a little upfront effort now can make for a much easier path for someone else later on. Once you have a plan in place, you only need to update every half-decade or so (though as mentioned earlier, you should look at it at least once a year to see if changes are needed). This all provides peace of mind as you face the unknowable future.