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Estate Planning

Estate planning means more than simply preparing a Last Will and Testament. In its broad sense, the term "estate planning" entails more than providing for the disposition of your assets upon your death with a minimum amount of taxation. Comprehensive estate planning, of course, provides for that. In addition such planning must provide for administration and protection of assets during a lifetime and for decision-making in the event of a disabling illness. 

Any complete estate plan should contain a Last Will and Testament, a durable health care power of attorney naming an agent (and an alternate) responsible for medical decision-making, a durable financial power of attorney naming an agent (and an alternate) responsible for asset management, bill paying and other financial activities if one is unable to do such things for oneself. It should also contain a living will or other advance directive giving instructions concerning the type of care one wishes to receive (or avoid) in the event of a terminal illness. In some cases, a revocable living trust may be appropriate as well. [These topics are covered in other Law and Aging Series booklets.] 

Such estate planning is an opportunity to make wishes known and to determine what person(s) will be responsible for carrying out those directives. Special arrangements, such as trusts for disabled family members, can be created. You are able to state your preferences concerning the type of care you receive, what types of medical care you do not wish to be done for you and can authorize someone to act as your agent in carrying out those wishes. Should you fail to do such planning, there may then be confusion as to what your wishes might have been and who you would have preferred to act as your decision maker. In fact, without such information, your wishes may never be known. If you do not leave a will, your assets will be distributed according to the laws of intestate succession enforced in your state; this plan may not be what you had in mind. 

 

What You Need To Know 

In preparing an estate plan, it is essential that all of your assets be considered. Your "estate" consists not only of your home and your car and your bank accounts. Your estate also includes the value of life insurance policies, investments that you may own (including those held in joint tenancy with other persons), your IRA's and other retirement accounts, and any other assets over which you can exercise control. There is no federal estate tax on estates of less than $ 600,000, but when life insurance and retirement plans are added to your other assets, this figure may not be as large as it sounds. In addition, some states may tax estates that are smaller. It is wise to do a complete inventory of all that you own before contacting your estate planner. 

You will need to make decisions about what to include in your plan. First, you should determine who will inherit your property upon your death. Do you want all of your assets to go to your spouse? There are special planning tools that can transfer all assets to your spouse upon your death and still provide special tax treatment to increase the tax-free transfers to $ 1.2 million or more. You must also be certain that your spouse is capable of managing things if you are deceased; if not you may want to name a trustee to handle things for him or her. 

Second, who will be responsible for administering your estate and who will be the alternate? 

Third, do special arrangements need to be made because of a second marriage by either spouse? Are you concerned about protecting your children if you die first? 

Next, you will need to list any specific gifts you want to make to non-family members and/or charities. Once these decisions are made and your inventory completed, your attorney will be able to advise you as to the best technique to use in planning your estate. You will get advice as to whether you are better off with a will or perhaps a living trust. 

You should consider your preferences concerning health care options and decide who will be your decision makers and do the same with regard to your finances in the event of disability. Finally, you should give thought to the difficult questions of what type of care you would want and not want in the event of terminal illness. If you have special desires concerning disposition of your remains, such as burial in a certain place or possible cremation, these should be brought up during your planning conference as well. 

Where To Go For Help

There are various types of "estate planners." Some insurance vendors call themselves estate planners as to some accountants and some financial planners. Often, these individuals will be selling some type of product or service. Estate planning attorneys are trained and experienced with wills, trusts, powers of attorney, living wills and the intricacies of estate taxes. They may recommend accounting services, financial planners or insurance purchases, but they do not earn their fees by selling such products. As a result, you are more likely to get thorough and unbiased advice from such an attorney. 

You will receive the best and most personal advice in a private meeting with your attorney. Use caution in attending free seminars about living trusts or other arrangements since such programs often will sell you documents that you do not need or documents that do not actually provide the type of benefits that are claimed. 

There are many books you may wish to review at your library or purchase at a bookstore. Be careful to note that this area of the law is constantly changing and such books are not always up to date. 

Finally, while there are pre-printed forms readily available for wills, powers of attorney, living trusts and living wills. Such forms may not be valid in your state or may not meet your specific needs. Completing such forms properly can be difficult and you cannot correct your mistakes when you are dead or disabled!

 

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