As attorneys who deal daily with issues of estate planning, it strikes us how common it is that people do not realize they have an estate. The idea floating around out there seems to be that only people with vast amounts of wealth can have such a thing. But nothing could be further from the truth.
An estate is simply the totality of what a person owns. This means that even a person whose only piece of property is the shirt on her back has an estate — one consisting of a single shirt. (Hopefully she also has some shoes, socks and a pair of pants to go along with it, at the very least).
Of course, estates do have the matter of scale to contend with. The probable reason for the popular misconception about estates is the stories that percolate through our culture about what happens in the wake of the deaths of famous wealthy people. We hear about the fights their children get into over who gets what from the estate; we hear about the elderly widower who marries a young woman just before croaking and the children who become enraged at the share of his life savings that she will get; we hear about “country estates” and imagine grand manors and large swaths of land in the European feudal tradition… it goes on and on. And it’s true that the court’s place in disposing of these kinds of large estates is almost certain to be more newsworthy than it will be in determining who gets the shirt off of our unfortunate young lady’s back if she passes.
Most of us inhabit the zone between these extremes. Your home (if you own it), your car (same), your checking account, any investments, furniture, jewelry and other personal possessions are all part of your estate. And when you pass from this earthly plane, no matter how hard you worked to accumulate it, you must leave it all behind.
But this doesn’t mean your control over who gets this property, or how it gets used, ends with your life. A good estate plan can ensure that it goes where you want it to go, or that it gets used in the way you want it to get used (within limits).
If you want to plan for such a future for your estate, contact a seasoned and knowledgeable attorney who can guide you and ease your concerns about estate planning. It’s never too early — or too late — to get started.