Military service is rewarding, but it is not without its challenges. For many servicepeople, establishing a comprehensive estate plan isn’t easy. Frequent deployments, overseas assignments, and constant uncertainty can make it difficult to commit to any one decision, especially decisions that could have far-reaching consequences.
However, estate planning should never be delayed. Many service men and women face danger daily, and without the protection afforded by an estate plan, they risk leaving their life’s work in the hands of a New York court.
The Importance of an Estate Plan
Most people recognize the importance of having an estate plan. By writing a will, establishing a trust, or delegating powers of attorney, you are making a conscious, proactive decision to shield your assets from uncertainty.
However, far too few Americans—servicepeople, veterans, and civilians alike—take the steps necessary to protect their rights from an intestate succession. While New York’s surrogate courts have the authority to disburse inheritances in the absence of a will, they are bound by stringent legal procedures. These procedures privilege certain “natural” heirs at the expense of others. These courts cannot accommodate the complexity of a serviceperson’s relationships, nor can they provide an inheritance for an unmarried partner.
An estate plan is, in most cases, the only way to ensure that your heirs receive the inheritance of your choosing.
The Foundations of an Estate Plan
Almost every estate plan serves the same basic purpose: providing living testators an opportunity to make informed decisions about their health, their wealth, and their loved ones. While the particulars of any given estate plan may vary, there are key components that should be in every plan.
Elements of a Solid Estate Plan
- A last will and testament. A last will and testament is a legal document that provides directions for how an estate should be divided when the testator dies. It can also be used to make other decisions, including the appointment of a guardian for a minor child or incapacitated adult. Ideally, a will should also name a personal representative, or executor, to fulfill the wishes of the testator.
- Guardianship arrangements. You can use your will to appoint a guardian who is accorded the legal authority and responsibility to care for a minor child or incapacitated adult. A guardian has a duty to both ensure their ward’s care and protect their finances.
- Advance care directive. An advance care directive provides instructions on what treatment you should or should not receive in the event that you are ever in an accident or otherwise incapacitated.
- Powers of attorney. Different powers of attorney, including the durable power of attorney, allow the testator to nominate an attorney-in-fact to execute certain transactions on their behalf. If you are ever incapacitated, your attorney-in-fact can use this power to pay your bills, keep rent or a mortgage current, or manage a retirement account.
- A revocable living trust. While a last will and testament can help families avoid probate, a revocable living trust could help keep your assets out of court altogether.
Former and current members of the military, however, often have estate planning needs that are different and need special attention.
Estate Planning for Service Men and Women
Military estate plans and civilian estate plans do not always differ in their details; however, servicepeople often have more urgent needs and may have to contend with circumstances that state-level law cannot always accommodate.
An experienced Brooklyn estate planning attorney could help you, or a loved one, make arrangements for the following:
- The preservation of property and assets while on an overseas deployment
- The protection of out-of-state real property, including private residences and vacation homes
- The intergenerational preservation of veterans’ benefits
While every branch of the United States military provides estate planning services for its members, these services have critical limitations. They are often outsourced to overburdened third-party clinics, which sometimes have months-long waiting lists. You do not have to wait to take action and begin protecting your family.