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What are some essential estate planning documents for service members?

Before any service member, whether they are active, retired, or a member of the Reserve, begins the estate planning process, it is important to build familiarity with some key documents. Using an Estate Planning Worksheet can help you compile the information required to make a complete estate plan.

The most well-known estate planning document is a Last Will and Testament. A Will states an individual's final wishes concerning the disposition of their assets or how they would like their property and possessions to be distributed after their death. This can be a bequest to a person, group, or charity. A Last Will and Testament is the bare minimum component of an estate plan. It does not protect against probate. It simply gives the maker some control over what happens to their assets after they pass away. A Will also lets an individual name a legal guardian for their minor or special needs children. If you do not have a valid Will in place, the laws of intestate succession come into play and your assets may be transferred to your relatives.

An Advance Directive, similar to a Living Will, states an individual’s desires for end-of-life care and names the person who is allowed to make those decisions for them. In this document you can specify desired treatment decisions. For example, you may wish to deny cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or a feeding tube but allow palliative care or pain relief. You can also outline when your instructions apply, such as only in the event that there is no possibility of recovery.

A Power of Attorney states that a person an individual names—called an “agent”— has the authority to make decisions on their behalf if they are unable to do so in the event of illness, injury, or incapacity. A separate Power of Attorney can be drafted for healthcare and finances. In addition, you can talk to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney about a Military Power of Attorney. Federal law exempts a Military Power of Attorney from any requirement of form, substance, formality, or recording that is needed by state law. For example, a Military Power of Attorney can provide the authority for someone to take possession of and order the removal and shipment of a service member’s household goods, to accept or terminate military quarters on their behalf, and to enroll a service member’s dependents in military benefits programs. An agent can also communicate with the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (the VA) about a disability claim.

A Trust may also be a part of your estate plan. A Trust places assets in a separate entity to allow the estate’s owner to pass assets and real estate to their beneficiaries without requiring the assets to go through the probate process. If you have a child with special needs, a lawyer can help you set up a Special Needs Trust to provide care and support for your child.

What benefits are available to service members to help with estate planning?

As part of their compensation and recognition for serving our country, service members and veterans are eligible to receive a number of exclusive benefits. One such benefit is Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, a special life insurance plan that is only available to service members. This low-cost term coverage is available to all eligible service members. The benefits include coverage up to $500,000, 120 days of free coverage from the date you left the military, and extension of free coverage for up to two years (if you’re totally disabled) when you leave the military. Part-time coverage is available if you’re a Reserve member who doesn’t qualify for full-time coverage. 

Veterans’ Group Life Insurance (VGLI) allows a service member to be able to continue their life insurance coverage after they leave the military. When you are discharged from the military, you can sign up through VGLI for coverage up to the amount you had through SGLI. You can also increase your coverage by $25,000 every five years—up to $500,000—until you are 60 years old. In addition, there is Family Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (FSGLI), which offers coverage for the spouse and dependent children of service members covered under full-time SGLI. Coverage goes up to a maximum of $100,000 for a spouse, not to exceed a service member’s SGLI coverage, and $10,000 for each dependent child. Dependent children get free coverage.

Life insurance is also offered to military caregivers, members of the National Guard, those who are new to the military, reserves, transitioning service members, veterans, and wounded warriors through Veterans Affairs Life Insurance.

Military service members who die due to injuries received in a war can pass survivor benefits on to their family members. To arrange this transfer at the time of death, they are required to work with the VA to ensure everything has been prepared properly.

If a veteran suffers a disability as a result of their military service, or another serious injury, their military spouse or another loved one can set up a Special Needs Trust for their benefit that ensures they can receive proper care if family members are no longer able to provide it.

Lastly, active service members and veterans may be eligible for funeral and burial arrangements that include military accolades. These military funeral honors provide a final tribute to eligible veterans and a meaningful ceremony to their families. Your estate plan can include instructions for this, which you can include in a Funeral Planning Worksheet.

What can family members of service members do to help?

Conversations about estate planning are difficult but necessary. For family and friends, consider your relationship to the veteran or service member and plan an appropriate time and place to initiate a preliminary discussion. Approach the conversation with respect.

For service members, asking for help or talking to your family or friends about being your executor or agent, or simply talking about your estate plan, can be uncomfortable. It is important to approach the subject in a way that will not cause them to needlessly worry. After all, the big reason to discuss your estate plan is to make sure your family and friends know your plan, and will be able to follow it when needed.

Who can prepare an estate plan for a service member?

Online estate planning forms can be a cost-efficient way to get started with an estate plan. All active duty members of the military, retired service members, military family members, survivors of fallen heroes who have military benefits, or anyone that can fill out online forms can start their estate plans on their own using online tools and forms. Family and friends can often help with compiling information.

Before signing, however, having your documents reviewed by a lawyer is important to make sure everything is done right, and you know what to do next. The laws covering estate planning vary from state to state, and some documents have particular signing requirements. It is critical to have estate planning documents reviewed by a lawyer since you may no longer be able to make decisions if an issue arises with one.

If you have more questions about starting or updating your estate plan, or want a lawyer to review your plan, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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