The general differences between a will and an estate plan are:
A will can: 1) direct how some or all of your property is passed at your death (to a greater or lesser degree of complexity), direct what happens to you at your death (but may not be seen until too late), and 3) if you have dependents it can name their guardian(s), including a guardian of their property.
While a will is important, it is limited in the following ways: 1) it can only go into effect if you are deceased, if you are incapacitated your non-spouse family has no guidance and often no ability to manage your funds or make your medical decisions 2) while a will can state your wishes for your body, last services, etc..., it is not always followed because a will is not always found and read immediately after death when these decisions are being made. In addition, if family disagrees, there can be disputes as to who has the right to make such decisions, 3) it will typically only govern the disposition of SOME of your property and the types of property not controlled are often among the most valuable (retirement accounts, life insurance, property owned by joint tenancy, and other assets with beneficiary designations will pass according to those designations and NOT according to your will), 4) without adding a trust to the will, money left for children can only be handled in specific, usually statutorially controlled ways, typically involving court supervision, 5) if you are only incapacitated there is no guardian designated for the children, the will is not in effect, and 6) children or family members with special needs and/or on government assistance may loose their benefits if they receive an inheritance from you via the courts that was not structured to avoid disqualifying them.
An estate plan can: 1) direct how ALL of your property is passed at your death, 2) direct what happens to you at death without requirement that will be found and read first, 3) if you have children it can name their guardians and by including trusts can provide a great degree of control over how money left for them is managed and spent WITHOUT court supervision, and 4) by using additional documents it can control what happens if you are incapacitated as well as if you are deceased and can protect funds for your loved ones in either event.
As you can see, while a will is a very important PIECE of an estate plan, doing "just a basic will" as many people are wont to do, leaves a lot of large gaps in coverage!
The good news is, the additional documents that are needed to fill in these gaps don't have to be crushingly expensive or hard to obtain. The term "estate planning" can sound intense, but a competent attorney can lead you through all of these decisions and documents in a way that makes sense for the size of estate you have and the people you need to protect. Contrary to popular beliefe "estate planning" doesn't refer only to complicated and expensive actions taken by high-asset families to protect and pass on great wealth. It refers to a big-picture plan that is available to the average individual and family too!
Jessica A. Brown, attorney