10 Estate-planning Ideas

All our lives, we plan. Some of the things we plan, such as what to have for dinner or the route we’ll take to work, are so trivial they require little thought. Other things, such as a family vacation or purchasing a new home, require a great deal of thought. All day, every day, we plan. Yet, many of us fail to plan for one of the most important tasks of all — what will happen to our possessions once we’re gone.

There are many excuses for not facing this task. Some simply believe there won’t be enough left to plan for. Others believe their heirs can work out the details. Still others simply aren’t willing to face their own mortality.

Planning for the distribution of your estate isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does require serious thought. Here are 10 steps to help you with this most important planning process.

Step 1: Assemble Your Estate-planning Team.

One of the most important decisions you’ll make regarding your estate is who will guide you through this process. This team often includes four individuals: an attorney, a tax professional, an investment professional and you. Choose professionals in whom you have utmost confidence, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Step 2: Determine Your Objectives.

Estate planning truly focuses on planning for life, your life and the lives of your heirs. Estate planning involves financial and tax matters, but it also involves helping ensure family members are secure. Discuss your objectives with your team, so they can suggest appropriate plans.

Step 3: Create a List of Your Assets.

To help you create a proper estate plan, your team must have an accurate list of the assets you own. Ask your attorney or investment professional if he or she can provide a document that will help inventory your assets.

Step 4: Minimize Administrative Details.

Settling an estate can involve a barrage of paperwork. Consolidate your assets, and keep a detailed inventory of your assets. This will give your survivors the information needed to re-register any securities.

Step 5: Draft a Will.

A will is a written document that explains how you want your property distributed. A will is crucial because it allows you to control how and to whom your assets are distributed. If you die without a will, state law will govern how your assets are distributed. A will is absolutely necessary if you have children who are still minors because it allows you to designate a guardian. Once you have a will, don’t file it away and forget it. Take it out periodically and review it. Things change over time, and chances are, you’ll want to change your will to reflect those changes.

Step 6: Reduce Your Probate Estate.

Probate is a process in which the courts carry out the provisions of your will. Your probate estate includes all assets titled in your name when you die; it does not include life insurance policies or jointly owned assets. Unfortunately, probate typically takes nine months to two years to complete and can cost between 2 percent and 5 percent of the value of the estate. In addition, probate records are public records, so anyone can access this information. Although it may be impossible to avoid probate entirely, you may be able to keep the majority of your estate from probate and, thus, simplify things for your heirs. Ask your team if this is appropriate for your situation.

Step 7: Determine Your Taxable Estate.

It’s important to distinguish between your probate estate and your taxable estate. Your taxable estate consists of the value of your gross estate (the fair market value of all your assets) less any deductions. The estate tax is imposed by the U.S. government on the assets or property you transfer to others when you die. The Tax Relief Act of 2001 has lowered estate tax rates, but they can still take a hefty chunk out of your estate. Ask your team how you can lower your estate tax bill.

Step 8: Take Advantage of Estate-tax Exemptions.

Under the current law, you can transfer up to $1 million in assets free of federal estate taxes upon your death. The amount of the exemption is increased to $3.5 million prior to repeal of the estate tax in 2010. For example, under current law, if Mary Smith passes away in the year 2004 with a taxable estate valued at $2 million, her heirs will owe estate taxes on the amount of Mary’s estate that exceeds $1.5 million. Thus, Mary’s taxable estate will be approximately $500,000. Learn from your team how to maximize these exemptions to reduce or eliminate estate taxes.

Step 9: Hope for the Best, but Plan for the Worst.

No one likes to think about the possibility, but what if you become unable to manage your affairs? A durable power of attorney allows you to designate who will manage your financial affairs should this happen. This person is known as your attorney-in-fact. In addition to a durable power of attorney, consider establishing a health care directive, or proxy. This allows someone to make certain health-care decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself.

Step 10: Protect Your Assets With Insurance.

Medical expenses in your later years can destroy a lifetime of work. Even worse, you could be forced to use your children’s or family’s resources. Life insurance can help. For example, life insurance can protect your survivors from the loss of your income and can provide cash for your family to help pay taxes and/or expenses when settling your estate. Ask your team how you can use insurance to protect you and your family.

With these 10 steps and a team of estate-planning professionals to guide you, you are now ready to begin planning for the distribution of your estate. Remember, don’t be afraid to ask questions along the way! Your team can provide invaluable information and insight.

Estate planning is a serious task that includes difficult decisions, but the results are well worth the effort. By taking time today, you will determine how your possessions are ultimately distributed. Don’t put off this process! After all, you’re not just planning trivial matters; you’re planning your lifetime’s legacy.