Expat family essentials: Estate planning checklist. Defining Moves: information, inspiration for the global expat family.  Trailing spouse, supporting partner, expat partner, accompanying partner, international assignmentWhen my mother came to visit us in Los Angeles, she neglected to bring her swimsuit, and was faced with the challenge of what to wear in our pool. My generous offer of a string bikini was rudely rejected with the words “Over my dead body”. I am taking her at her word, and when she moves on to a better place, we will be marking her passing with an open casket viewing and the aforementioned attire.

Just to compound your already low opinion of me, I also respond to unwanted maternal points for improvement with the words “ Just remember who’ll be choosing the nursing home”…

Let this be a lesson to those of you who are feeling complacent having written your will; if you also want a say in your care and send off, do in it writing, and make sure it can be found before the services (healthcare, financial or spiritual) have taken place. It applies to all of you, but if you are an expat, the risks are even higher..

 

There are four more documents that you need to consider preparing:

  • Guidelines for your funeral arrangements
  • Power of Attorney
  • Trust / Catalogue of assets
  • Letter of intent

Funeral arrangements. 

If, like myself, you have specific ideas about your funeral, you need to put a plan in place so that loved ones left behind can honor your wishes. For those of us with a somewhat warped sense of humor, it’s a great time to mess with everyone a little, but I appreciate that not everyone out there is as cruel as I.

The key points to cover include:

Location for service (church, crematorium etc.), preference for cremation or burial, memorial service, storage / distribution of ashes, etc.

Funeral preferences – hymns, caskets, flowers, donations, clothing (yours, but feel free to have a little fun with their dress code too…). You could even write your own eulogy and obituary, complete with an embellished (and  potentially wholly fictitious) list of accomplishments.

Funding – it’s the one we all forget, but if you are living overseas and wish to be buried in your home town, make provision for the costs of repatriating both your body and your family. Your embassy can give guidance, but the costs are entirely your own. Bear in mind that your heirs can’t easily access accounts left in your name once you have died – funeral expenses are deducted from the estate before it is divided between the beneficiaries, but flights etc are usually paid in advance, so ask your lawyer the best way to facilitate this.

 

The Durable Power of Attorney / Enduring Power of Attorney is a document that designates a representative to make financial, health care, or other business decisions for you if you become unable to do so for yourself.

This can be general or limited / springing. A general durable power of attorney gives permission for whomever you name to make every decision on your behalf, if you are no longer able to advocate for yourself. A limited durable power of attorney cover specific events, like selling property, making investments (often given to financial advisors / brokers) or making health care decisions (also called an Advance Directive of Health Care).

You can choose anyone to act as your agent, but commonsense rules apply – choose someone trustworthy who has your best interests at heart, and who is physically able to make those decisions; while many decisions can be made remotely, those living overseas should consider choosing someone who is able to travel.

Trust

I am not a lawyer, nor have any legal expertise or qualification, so I am leaving the explanation of what exactly a trust is to those in the know – click here for the best explanation I could find, or check out the additional resources at the bottom of the page. Your task is to go away and get legal advice on whether trusts are applicable to your situation.

Simply put, a trust is a legal holding zone for assets, which are controlled by individuals known as ‘trustees’, for the benefit of other named parties “beneficiaries”. You nominate multiple trustees and beneficiaries, allowing both flexibility (it is relatively straightforward to change the conditions of the trust) and smooth transition of both control of and benefit from the trust.

The vast majority of people set up trusts for financial reasons – properly crafted, your trust can help to avoid significant estate taxes. However, for expats, the ability for assets to be transferred seamlessly is often far more important; especially where the remaining spouse is on a dependent visa and no longer legally entitled to remain in the host country.

It also has the advantage not just cataloging major assets but also specifying how beneficiaries can access the funds contained in the trust, meaning that should the unthinkable happen and both parents die, they can leave instructions for funds to be released at appropriate intervals (for example, lump sums to cover college tuition and living costs, down payments on a first home etc) rather than giving total control when the children reach legal adulthood.. As someone with a 17 year old who is unable to manage his birthday money effectively, the thought of leaving him in charge of half our net worth in a year’s time sends shudders down my spine.

Finally, it’s the easy one – your letter of intent. It’s not a legal document, instead simply some guidance to the guardians of your estate and your dependents about what your wishes, your hopes and your future plans for your dependents are.

There are two things to bear in mind:

  1. Think of your letter of intent as a set of guidelines, not rules. You are handing over the job to someone who is not you (and never will be), so let them do their best with the situation they have; if there are any ‘dealbreakers’, it’s probably a good idea to discuss them in person before you assign them the responsibility.
  2. Make sure you have the funds to back it up. There’s nothing like being left with a laundry list of expectations, and no money to do it. It’s the same lesson we teach our children; if it’s that important, you should be willing to pay for it with your own money..
  3. Don’t assume children are your only dependents; you may need to make provision for your parents, your pets or your clients.

So there we go – you are well on the way to getting your plans a little more ‘future-proofed’, whether in terms of money, care for your dependents, or what they say about you in your obituary. Just remember; your epitaph really is the one thing that is written in stone…

 

6 Responses to Expat Family Essentials: The Estate Planning Checklist

  1. TJ says:

    As an expat with assets spread over different locations, a lawyer should be hired in which location? Laws governing property are different in different countries so how does one find a universal lawyer who can help with will making etc?

    • Rachel says:

      As a rule of thumb, your will and estate plan is applied to your country of ‘domicile’ – a single location – and it is best to speak to a lawyer who works with expatriates and specializes in international law to determine where that is. It is usually a term that relates to your duration of residence, where you pay tax and where the bulk of your assets / life are. If you contact your embassy or your tax preparer (you are probably paying tax on those assets internationally already), they often can point you in the right direction. A note of caution: the laws and estate tax liabilities are constantly changing, so you will need an annual ‘checkup’ to make sure it remains valid.

  2. Judy says:

    As always a well-researched and useful article on a topic many expats overlook and sending organizations never mention, but only you, Rachel, would write a post about funeral arrangements on Halloween! ;)

  3. Evan Guthrie says:

    Good estate planning info for the expat family.

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