Confronting our own mortality is often a task we prefer to put on the back burner for as long as possible. However, neglecting your estate planning can only have negative consequences in the long run: your true wishes for the disposal of your assets after your death are unlikely to be realized, and your family may be unable to access your estate for months if lengthy probate proceedings ensue. Starting the estate planning process may be difficult – which is why it may be easier for you to work your way through an estate planning checklist, taking things one step at a time. By following this simple guide, your estate planning will seem a lot less painful – and you’ll be making sure all your bases are covered.
Create an Assets and Liabilities Inventory
Before you consider how you want your assets to be distributed after your passing, you first need to determine what assets you actually have to dispose. Make an inventory of all your possessions worth more than $100 – and don’t forget to include collectibles, antiques and heirlooms, the value of which you might take for granted. Once you’ve worked your way through your physical assets, take an inventory of all your non-physical assets, including any retirement funds, brokerage or bank accounts, and life insurance policies. After you’ve made a list of all your assets, you need to add up your liabilities – from open credit cards, to mortgages, to any other loans you might be paying off. You should also make a list of all the charitable or other organizations which you belong to, which you make yearly contributions to. You may want to arrange for donations to be made to these organizations from your estate after your death, so it is a good idea to narrow down which organizations are closest to your heart. Once you’ve made a completed list of all your assets and liabilities, you should make several copies of it, ensuring that you give one to your estate administrator and one to your spouse, child or other trusted love one.
Review Retirement Account and Life Insurance Beneficiary Listings
Certain retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and IRA accounts, will not fall into your estate upon your death, but will transfer immediately to the beneficiary you have listed for that account. Even if you have changed the beneficiary in your will, the listing for the account will take precedence, so it is good idea to review and update all your retirement account beneficiaries. Life insurance policies and other annuities work in the same way, so contact the administrators of your annuities to ensure that your beneficiaries are listed as you would like them to be.
Probate is a costly and often drawn-out court process by which your estate’s assets will be distributed. It is not only the cost of probate which makes it something you’ll want to avoid as far as possible – it is also the fact that until assets have been probated, they cannot be transferred to family members who need to access them. By setting up the transfer-on-death (TOD) feature on your bank and brokerage accounts, you’ll be able to ensure that these accounts avoid unnecessary probate. You may also avoid probate by forming and funding a revocable living trust. Upon your death, your assets are distributed as set forth in your trust by your successor Trustee without delay and without a probate proceeding, saving you time and money.
Write Your Will
The next step – and arguably the most important step – for you to take is to write your will. A will ensures that your heirs are clear on how your assets are to be distributed, leaving little room for conflict after your passing. It is advisable that you seek the advice of a professional wills and trusts attorney in this process. Testamentary documents must be carefully written to ensure that they are legally valid and that your wishes are properly given effect to. An estate planning attorney will also alert you to the many legal mechanisms available – such as revocable and irrevocable trusts and usufructs – by which you can distribute your assets. You may also want to consider writing a living will, which will instruct your family members as to your wishes should you become incapacitated. Having a durable power of attorney will allow your attorney in fact to handle your financial affairs if you are unable to handle them yourself for any reason. Appointing a health care surrogate is also a good idea: they will assume responsibility for all medically-related decisions which need to be made on your behalf should you become incapacitated.
Choose Your Estate Administrator
In writing your will, you need to elect an individual to be the personal representative of your estate when the time comes. This is an important decision to make as the estate administrator is essentially responsible for ensuring that your will is properly given effect to. You need to choose someone who will be clear-headed and have the emotional energy to manage this complex administrative process at the time of your death. For this reason, choosing a spouse or family member is not always the best idea. It may be preferable for you to elect for your Family accountant or attorney to be the estate administrator.
Estate Planning is a Continuous Exercise
Once you have taken stock of your assets, updated your retirement funds, and written your will, you will have completed the bulk of the estate planning process. However, life moves on, and your will may only come into effect in many years’ time. Be sure to update your will regularly and as important life events occur (such as the birth of a child, or death of a beneficiary). Keep careful track of all your documents, and make sure that at least one set of copies is kept in a safety deposit box. Estate planning doesn’t have to be daunting, but if you’re in need of advice, don’t hesitate to give the estate planning lawyers at Gary I. Handin, PA. a call. We will gladly take you through every step of the process to ensure you and your family’s best interests are taken care of at the time of your passing.