Taking stock of your assets and goals is groundwork for a good estate plan.
Very few people relish the idea of estate planning. Deciding how you want your assets distributed after you die can serve as a rather unnerving reminder of your mortality. But, even so, there are plenty of reasons to tackle the task with some enthusiasm:
- You get to name the people to whom you wish to give your assets and know that your wishes carry the word of law.
- You have the ability to minimize or even eliminate estate taxes, which means you have more control over your estate.
- And you have the satisfaction of knowing that your financial affairs are in order and that you're not bequeathing a costly administrative nightmare to your loved ones.
Your first step? Take stock of all your assets. These include your investments, retirement accounts,insurance policies, real estate and any business interests.
Next, decide what you want to achieve with those assets and who you want to inherit them.This is also a good time to think about people you would trust to handle your business affairs and medical care in the event that you become incapacitated.
Norman Ross of the Ross Companies, a New York estate-planning and benefits consulting firm, says: "If you treat your wealth as a hidden kingdom, a box that no one can open until you're gone, you're setting your family up for disaster." With this in mind, once you've decided what kinds of bequests you wish to make, you may want to consider discussing your plans with your heirs.The more distinctly you outline your intentions to your family and friends, the less chance there will be for disagreements.
In creating your estate plan, keep in mind that the laws governing estate planning are not set in stone.Estate planning after the 2010 Tax Relief Act saw big changes and estate planners must now evaluate all estate plans in light of the new tax rules, the increased exemptions and lowered rates, and other features of the new law.
What this means, quite simply, is estate planning has become far more complicated for people with sizable estates, and having a trusted and competent estate-planning lawyer is essential if you wish to protect as much of your assets from Uncle Sam (and your state tax collector) as possible. Such a lawyer can create legal documents, offer advice, keep your estate plan current with new laws and help administer the disposition of assets.
Heidi Bitterman is a graduate of Southwestern University School of Law and an associate attorney at the Law of Offices of Donald P. Schweitzer.
Ms. Bitterman has experience in drafting and administration of trusts and comprehensive experience in probate. She represents clients in the administration of estates, conservatorship proceedings, guardianship proceedings and court supervised trusts.
Ms. Bitterman is a member of the Los Angeles County Bar Association and the Pasadena Bar Association.