What’s the first thing that you think about when you’re asked about a will?  If you’re like the millions of Americans without a proper estate plan, thoughts likely move quickly to your own mortality.  Perhaps that’s why so many people stay in that estate planning purgatory for far too long.  Recent high profile deaths of celebrities without wills affirm that estate planning needs to be a part of your adult life in order to leave your family in a better position, and to make sure that what you own goes where you want.  But the idea and the process can be daunting. For those unsure of where to start, below are what we view as critical life stages and some of the estate planning strategies we recommend at each step.

Stage 1: Turning 18

Most 18-year-olds haven’t amassed a large amount of assets.  However, legal adulthood is the first milestone at which someone should start thinking about estate planning.  We recommend at least creating a will and executing a power of attorney.  This is an important step because it legally allows someone to make decisions in case of emergency.  It makes sense to start with your family’s financial advisor—especially if he or she has a legal background—because an advisor has much greater familiarity with your situation.  A financial advisor can create a framework for a will for the attorney, with the added benefit that your financial advisor does not charge an extra fee for this service.

Stage 2: Getting Married

Even if you have documents in place, there’s almost no chance they include your new spouse.  Once the honeymoon ends, don’t forget to review your estate plan and make appropriate changes.  If you don’t have a will at all and something happens to you, your estate gets a little tricky.  Intestate law—which governs the estate of a person without proper documents—varies from state to state.  It is possible that your spouse might not receive everything automatically, even if that was your desire.

Stage 3: Having Children

Many people try to get away with not having a plan until they have kids, but it’s a huge mistake to go any further without one.  Without a proper estate plan, you may relinquish all control over where your money goes and how it gets there.  One plan to consider is setting up a trust for your children, in order to ensure an easier transfer of wealth.  Leaving money outright to a minor can be both costly and time consuming. Trusts also help children with special needs so that parents can balance a potential inheritance with government benefits.

Your child’s 18th birthday is another logical time to revisit your estate documents, in case circumstances may dictate a change in the way you want to distribute your wealth.  At this point, you still have time to change the distribution schedule in the trust that you set up without further complicating it—and before it’s too late.

Stage 4: Retirement

This is a moment of truth for many people.  The intersection of financial planning and estate planning becomes even more apparent at retirement.  New retirees who have accumulated wealth over their peak earning years often struggle with how to handle their finances once they no longer receive a constant paycheck.  Are there tax issues to think about?  Should you roll a 401(k) into an IRA?  What about converting an IRA into a Roth?  Reevaluating your estate at this point in your life makes it a lot easier to figure out how much money you need to live comfortably and how much you can set aside for future generations.

While each stage of life has its own unique estate planning needs, your plan needs to be revisited regularly to adjust for unpredictable events.  These scenarios that you may not expect—divorce, untimely death in the family, trouble with the law, etc.—create aftershocks that impact your estate.  You hope you never have to deal with these events, but the only certainty here is that there’s plenty of uncertainty.  By checking and re-checking your estate plan and making necessary adjustments over the years, you can plan for the uncertainty and avoid a legacy of unwanted costs and confusion.

For more information on the most effective way to begin the estate planning process, contact Wescott Financial.