Do you have an estate plan? Don’t make the mistake of overlooking your assets because you think you don’t have any. In fact, a basic estate plan is an important financial document for everyone to have, and here’s why.

With few exceptions, everyone has an estate — even the young child with a custodial account in his name and the granddaughter who received a lovely piece of jewelry for her 16th birthday.

Bottom line: If you own something of value that you would like to pass on to someone else upon your death, you have an estate. Whether you know it or not, you also have an estate plan. The state has one for you free of charge (well, sort of) if you don’t get around to writing a will or designing a plan of your own.

Broadly speaking, an estate plan encompasses the accumulation, conservation and distribution of an estate. A good plan will enhance and maintain the financial security of individuals and their families.

Estate-planning basics

You need certain documents to meet your estate-planning goals, and you also need a basic understanding of the way it all works. Broadly, this includes:

  • Wills: the cornerstone of all estate plans.
  • Trusts as a complement to wills.
  • The estate tax system: how it works.
  • Current law.
  • Gift tax on generosity.
  • State death tax may apply.

Wills: The cornerstone of all estate plans

A will is a personal declaration of your intentions about the disposition of your property at death. Everybody should have one.

Because a will does not become legally enforceable until your death, it may be changed at any time before the maker’s, or testator’s, death or mental incompetence. A properly drafted will contains instructions for your personal representative, the executor. The executor is responsible for administering your estate.

A will offers many advantages, enabling you to control, to a large extent, what happens after you’re gone.

With a will, you can:

  • Choose the executor.
  • Designate a guardian for minor children or others unable to fully care for themselves.
  • Distribute your property to beneficiaries you choose.
  • Be generous to charity at death.
  • Minimize estate tax.
  • Get a sense of accomplishment and peace of mind.

A person who dies without a will dies “intestate.” Dying intestate can be unnecessarily costly for your heirs and leaves you with no specific say about who receives your assets or in what proportion those assets will be distributed.

Some assets, such as individual retirement accounts and life insurance proceeds, bypass a will entirely and go directly to the beneficiaries listed and filed with the financial firm that handles those products. Otherwise, the state decides who gets what. Each state has a prescribed order for the distribution of property of those who die with no will.

Having your property items pass according to your state’s succession statutes is a rather rigid default distribution scheme because predetermined, specific percentages of your estate assets will go to your closest blood relatives only — the state’s way, not yours.

Whether you have a will or not, your property that does not pass according to its title or beneficiary designation goes through probate — that is, the state court’s system for monitoring its distribution.

Characteristics of a will

  • A simple will is a relatively inexpensive document, often costing a couple of hundred dollars. This guesstimate varies according to complexity, size of the estate and geographic location.
  • A will only transfers property that you own in your name alone. Therefore, property you own as a joint tenant with right of survivorship or property that passes by beneficiary designation, such as life insurance proceeds or retirement assets, cannot be transferred by will.
  • Even if you have a trust, you should still have a will for any assets the trust does not cover.

Trusts as a complement to wills

You establish trusts during your lifetime. Trusts involve the transfer of your property to an individual or corporate trustee who manages the assets within the trust’s control for the benefit of one or more others — the beneficiaries.

A living, or inter vivos, trust is one that is effective during your lifetime; a testamentary trust is one that is contained within the provisions in your will. A testamentary trust does not become operative until your death.

Because the will can be changed prior to death, assuming the testator, or creator of the will, is mentally competent, the trust terms are amendable. Living trusts can be created to be revocable or irrevocable. With a revocable trust, the creator of the trust, or grantor, has access to the trust corpus — another word for “principal” — while alive; the trust assets within an irrevocable trust, however, no longer belong to the grantor. Once transferred to the trust, they are owned by the trust entity.

The reasons for trusts are as varied as their creators. These are some motives behind their creation.


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