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Life Stages: Estate Planning


Marine and military spouse planning for retirement


"Estate planning” may sound like something exclusively for the wealthy, but it’s an important financial task to handle for anyone.

Why is it particularly important for Veterans and servicemembers with military benefits to consider? Well, the truth of the matter is they are more likely to have a grave injury. Putting themselves in harm’s way is their job; they put their actual life on the line. That is why, for servicemembers in particular, it is very important to have an Estate Plan.

Veteran estate planning involves determining what will happen to your home, investments, benefits, cash, business interests, and other property after you die or if you become incapacitated. It also helps ensure your loved ones will be provided for if something happens to you.

Estate planning even allows you to select the person(s) you want to care for your children under age 18 and to assign someone to make healthcare-related decisions for you if necessary.

Given the nature of life in the service, military estate planning is best done while you are healthy and not under the stress of an emergency that requires immediate decision-making. Planning ahead lets you explore all of your options and make informed choices so that, if needed, your estate will be in order and not require probate after you’ve passed away.

Why Avoiding Probate Is Important

Probate refers to the legal process that takes place after your death. This includes proving your will, preparing an inventory of your property, appraising your property, paying any owed taxes and debts, then finally distributing what’s left to the rightful heirs.

Probate laws vary by state. The process for the average estate generally takes six to nine months to complete, provided there are no major issues causing delays.

In addition to holding up dispersing your estate, probate costs money — generally 1 to 6% of the estate’s market value. Estate planning allows you to avoid delays and added expenses while ensuring your personal wishes are followed.

Basics of Veteran Estate Planning

When planning your estate, there are several key steps that you need to take to ensure it will go smoothly:

Take inventory of your belongings.

Account for all of your tangible items — such as your home, cars, collectibles, and other possessions — as well as intangibles, such as bank accounts, life insurance policies, retirement plans, etc. to determine their total monetary value. Why is this important? For starters it is a great way to see if your life is insured properly. Will there be enough life insurance to cover the cost of living for your loved ones? You’ll also see exactly what funds will actually be available when settling your estate.

Make sure you provide for your family’s welfare.

If you have children under the age of 18, then providing directions for their care is a critical part of the estate planning process. This means naming a guardian (and, ideally, a backup guardian) in case something happens. As previously mentioned, it also means making sure you have enough life insurance coverage to prevent your survivors from having to worry about lost income if something were to happen to you. Ensuring beneficiaries are up to date is a very important process when reviewing your Estate Plan.

Get your paperwork in order.

Estate planning involves having a number of legal documents completed and signed. Some of the paperwork you need includes the following:

  • Will and/or trust
  • Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA)
  • Advanced medical directives (“living will”) which lets others know which medical treatments you do or do not want to have performed if you are terminally ill or suffer a severe injury
  • Letter of Instruction
  • Right of Disposition of Remains

AAFMAA Members also have access to Law Assure, an estate planning program provided as a result of our partnership with AUSA.

Local JAG offices can help with a number of these items, but when it comes to building a Trust it is best to seek council from a local Estate Planning Attorney.

Be sure to store your estate and legal documents in a secure location where your Next of Kin or representative will know to find them. At AAFMAA, our Members have access to our Digital Vault for safe and secure document storage.

Talk to a professional.

While you can find some resources and online tools to help you compile a will and other documents, you want to make sure that you’re planning your estate correctly and legally. It is advised to seek counsel with an Attorney who specializes in Estate Planning. You can check an attorney's status with the American Bar Association here: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_services/flh-home/flh-lawyer-licensing/