Coming up with an estate planning checklist can be a jarring activity. Basically, a person who devises an estate plan is acknowledging he or she will die. Of course, we all know that death is one of life’s few certainties. But it’s often sobering to see an estate plan in black and white.
But the reality that we’re only here for a finite amount of time is what makes estate planning so important. When done correctly, the entire process—from declaring a durable power of attorney to drawing up wills to donating money tax-free to family members, friends and charities and every activity in between—will make things much easier for a person’s survivors in the days, months and years following his or her death.
Here are some estate planning basics to follow:
Find a durable power of attorney. This may be even a more essential step than writing a will. A durable power of attorney is the person who has the legal right to act on behalf of someone who is medically incapacitated. Establishing a durable power of attorney provides the estate planner peace of mind knowing his or her affairs will be in the hands of a trusted family member or confidant. It is especially important for estate planners to do this well ahead of time, because should someone suffer an injury or illness that renders him or her unable to handle his or her affairs, a court will appoint a guardian or conservator at the family’s expense.
Write a will. A will ensures the deceased can declare where his or her "probate property"—i.e. the property the deceased owns at the time of death, such as real estate, automobiles and some bank accounts—will go following his or her death. A will can also help the wealthy minimize the estate taxes their survivors will have to pay. Those who die without a will in place ("intestate") will have their estate distributed during the probate process, which can be costly and time-consuming for the survivors.
In 2012, there is no estate tax assigned to estates valued at less than $5,120,000. However, the federal estate tax is 35 percent, so it behooves those who have this much property and are not leaving it all to a spouse to design an estate plan in which they make tax-free donations that can lessen the tax hit their descendants will take. An individual may donate as much as $13,000 to another person without having to report the gift via a gift tax return. And gifts made to charities are not taxed.
Estate planning is an imposing task from the very beginning and the locating of a durable power of attorney. But it is vital that it be done, and done correctly, so that a person has a say in how his or her estate is distributed upon death and to maximize the inheritance received by his or her survivors.