Dos & Don'ts of Estate Planning

Dos & Don'ts of Estate Planning

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An estate plan protects your family and finances after you die. Your first step in estate planning is to write a comprehensive will that moves smoothly through the probate process. Make sure you're aware of current estate taxes that may influence your planning and how insurance factors into your estate plan. Various types of trusts are available; do some research to find out if setting up a trust is the way to go, and consider some special circumstances that may arise and how they can affect your estate planning.

Things to Remember When You're Writing Your Will

Basically, probate is the method by which your estate is legally transferred after you die. When planning your estate and writing your will, keep these tips in mind to help the probate process run smoothly:

  • You can be both specific and general in your will — it's up to you. You can parcel out individual items to people by name and also let your beneficiaries decide how to divide up your worldly goods.
  • State law does have something to say about the language of your will, however. Your state has a number of will statutes that may override a provision of your will if you say something that's against the law.
  • Certain parts of your will "self-adjust" to changes in your estate and your family. For example, even if you don't update your will after a child is born or if you adopt a child, your will covers the child just the same so that the child isn't accidentally cut out of an inheritance.
  • You can get around much of the time-consuming, inconvenient, and costly process called probate by creating trusts and using will substitutes, such as joint tenancy with right of survivorship and payable on death accounts.
  • If you own real estate property in another state, like a time share by the shore, you may need to worry about going through probate in that state, too.

Estate-Related Taxes You Need to Know About

Depending on the value of your estate, you may not have to deal with at least some of the federal taxes, but you or your surviving beneficiaries may have a substantial amount of tax-related paperwork to file. When estate planning, use these tips to understand what you're dealing with from a tax standpoint:

  • Most people don't have to pay the federal estate tax — the so-called "death tax" —because their estates fall below the federal threshold. But your estate may still be subject to state inheritance or estate taxes.
  • The federal gift tax and the federal estate tax are part of a unified tax system, so you need to pay attention to both of these taxes as you plan your overall estate tax strategy.
  • The little-known Estate Recovery Act can devastate your estate if you need to tap into certain types of government-paid health care. But you can protect your estate if you understand the rules.

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