Estate planning is simply creating a set of instructions on how you want to distribute your money and property when you die. Estate planning is not just for the wealthy. Even the average person may have reason to plan their estate. For example, you need an estate plan if:
- You have ever purchased life insurance
- You have a retirement or savings account
- You own your own home
- You own a car or other assets
- You own, or are a partner in, a business
The people you named as beneficiaries are the people you’d want to protect by creating an estate plan. Without an estate plan, you create risks like:
Loss of Control — What to do with your assets, insurance proceeds, property, taxes, and debt settlement all become someone else’s decision.
Additional Costs — Funeral and/or long-term disability expenses may increase.
Legal Issues — An out-of-date Will that doesn’t account for all assets might be challenged by your surviving family.
Family Conflicts — Family members may begin arguing with each other if disputes arise over assets, medical care, end-of-life requests, or funeral arrangements. This is unpleasant and entirely avoidable.
Custody Issues — Surviving minor children and pets will need to have guardians appointed.
- Personal Inventory of Material Goods — Inventory all the objects in your home with a value of $100 or more. Your beneficiaries may not know the value of these, so you will be helping them out. This inventory can also be useful with regard to your homeowner’s insurance. Include things like the house itself, vehicles, computers and electronics, jewelry, workshop tools, musical instruments, antiques, collections, and pricey appliances.
- Personal Inventory of Intangible Assets — This includes things you own on paper, like brokerage and retirement accounts, savings accounts, life insurance policies, copies of all other insurance policies, including homeowners, automobile, and long-term disability policies.
- List of Debts — Make a list of all your debts, including revolving credit cards, fixed payment loans, home equity lines of credit (HELOCs), any debt with a lien on your house, and auto loans. Note any unusual debts like past-due property taxes, or business-related debts. Depending on how your business is set up, your creditors may try to place a lien on your personal estate.
- List of Memberships — Many membership organizations automatically include free accidental death benefits that could benefit your surviving family. Some include AAA, AARP, Veteran’s Associations, etc.
- List Retirement and Savings Accounts — Check that the beneficiaries are correct. Consider consolidating similar accounts into one for simplicity.
- Review Life Insurance Policies — Confirm the beneficiaries are correct. Also confirm coverage amounts and compare to the debts you are carrying. Life insurance is a way to pass on assets to your beneficiaries without any taxes being deducted. They can convert the funds into an annuity or other investment for steady monthly income. An irrevocable trust may provide the best protection from taxation for insurance proceeds.
- Transfer Real Property into Joint Ownership — This simplifies the estate process when one spouse passes away. Consult an estate planner or lawyer; a real estate trust may be a good solution.
- Transfer Property That Will Appreciate — Transfer assets that will probably appreciate in value into a trust with the beneficiary’s name. This may give your estate a tax advantage.
- Choose Guardians for Your Dependents — Select a person, or persons, you trust to care for your children. Be careful though, and don’t leave many important financial decisions for them to make. Set up your Will so that life insurance proceeds and any other assets will be securely transferred into safe investment accounts, annuities, and trusts for your children. Those accounts might be better off managed by a person or people other than your children’s new guardian. Guardianship may also be set up for pets; they need care, too. Life is uncertain, so it’s always a good idea to name at least one alternate guardian.
- Choose an Executor — Select someone you trust to act responsibly and rationally in the event of your death. Be sure they have a copy of all your completed documents. Like guardians, it’s always a good idea to name at least one alternate executor.
- Create Your Wills — You’ll need a traditional Will for your assets and a Living Will if you are incapacitated. Have both documents witnessed, notarized, and keep three copies: one for your spouse (safe-deposit box), one for your reference at home, and one for your executor. Review and update at least every two years, because your circumstances may change. A good reminder would be to review the documents when your annual safe-deposit box fee is due.
- Decide on Funeral Arrangements — You may even want to pre-pay these expenses over time. Death is inevitable and so is inflation. You set up a payment plan before the prices go up.
- Consult a Financial Planner — They can review your investments, insurance, assets, and debts. They might suggest improvements or changes because your options may change over time and with age. Schedule a review every two to five years.
- Plan For Gift-Giving — These may reduce your tax burden now and at the time of your death. Take advantage of the IRS’s $14,000 annual tax-free gift allowance to fund a trust or savings account.
- Save For College Expenses — 529 accounts for children and grandchildren help you save on taxes now. The appreciation is tax free, if used for qualified educational expenses. If a grandparent sets it up, schools won’t include it in the FAFSA calculations, so your college student will receive more aid.
- Business Transfer Arrangements — If you own a business, make a succession plan. If necessary, create a buy/sell plan for family-owned business interests. You may also be able to create a gift program.
Estate planning is very important, but don’t let it overwhelm you. If it seems like too much, try completing one task every weekend. As you progress, place the completed documents in a safe-deposit box. Before you know it, you’ll be done!
Updated: January 1, 2014