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Estate-Planning Checklist

Jessica Lanning


Many people assume that estate planning is only for the wealthy, inadvertently causing complications for families following their death. Contrary to popular belief, estate planning isn’t just about money or family heirlooms; there is far more at stake, including the welfare of your loved ones. As unimaginable as your sudden demise may seem, you need a strategy in place. With appropriate planning, your family can grieve properly without worrying about complicated financial matters, living arrangements, unexpected taxes, or even funeral costs and preparations.

Here are the most important steps you should take now to protect both your loved ones and your assets:

Prepare a Last Will: The first and most imperative step is to have a last will and testament prepared, specifying the following: 1) Your heirs; 2) The executor who will implement your instructions; 3) The designated guardian who will act as caregiver of your minor children; 4) The guardian who will manage assets you leave to your minor children. Consider working with an estate-planning attorney to assure this essential document is correct, as even the most seemingly insignificant errors can alter your will’s intent.

Name Your Durable Power of Attorney: Don’t confuse this with the executor of your last will, although you can certainly designate the same person to serve as both.  A durable power of attorney is the person you choose to oversee your finances should you become temporarily or permanently incapacitated; he/she will manage your bills, bank deposits, medical benefits, and insurance when you are unable to do so.

Establish a Living Will/Health-Care Directives: Just as you must consider your inevitable death and its financial implications, there is an unfortunate chance of becoming temporarily or permanently unable to make your own medical decisions. A living will defines your medical preferences, such as whether you wish to remain on life support. You should also designate a health-care proxy (also referred to as a medical surrogate), who advocates on your behalf to ensure your medical instructions are carried out.

Choose Your Beneficiaries: Be sure to set up or revise the beneficiaries on your savings and checking accounts, life insurance policies, retirement plans, and even stocks, bonds, and brokerage accounts, particularly so they align with your will.  Understand that because a named beneficiary on an account will override your will, people can unknowingly disinherit a loved one. You can prevent these unintended mishaps by reviewing your beneficiaries in accordance with your will.

Familiarize Yourself with Estate Tax Laws: The last thing you want for your heirs are the unexpected costs associated with federal and state estate and inheritance taxes. While your heirs are not required to pay income tax on their inheritance, estate taxes levied against your total wealth — which occurs prior to any distributions — could dramatically impact what your beneficiaries or chosen charities receive. Careful review of your assets along with strategic planning can protect your legacy.

Consider Life Insurance: If you’re married, have minor children, or even a disabled adult child, life insurance is a great way to assure these loved ones will continue to receive financial support in the event of your death. Properly structured, beneficiaries can receive the life insurance proceeds with no income- or estate-tax ramifications. You can also consider life insurance as a supplemental source to help offset any levied estate taxes.

Think about Funeral and Final Arrangements: Do you plan on donating organs? What type of funeral service do you envision? Why burden family with such difficult decisions when you can plan ahead with a written document specifying instructions for the disposition of your body and funeral service preferences?

Protect Your Business: Owning a business can significantly complicate your estate, as any accrued assets won’t necessarily transfer to spouses or beneficiaries without proper directives. Likewise, if you share a business, make sure you have an arranged buyout agreement, which, among several other scenarios, plans for the event of your death.

Set Up a Trust: The larger the value of your estate, the more you should consider setting up a trust. Similar to a last will, a trust allows you to designate financial beneficiaries and even a guardian for minor children, with three important advantages over wills: 1) Assets retained through a trust are not subject to probate, therefore, allowing for faster distributions to loved ones or cherished organizations; 2) Unlike wills, trusts are not considered public documents, providing the added benefit of privacy; and 3) You can place special conditions on your legacy, such as when it should be dispersed and how it can be spent, which may be more beneficial for young-adult recipients or irresponsible heirs.

Store Your Documents: Make sure your power of attorney or executor has quick and convenient access to your important paperwork: wills and trusts, life insurance policies, bank and retirement account statements, certificates of other assets, mortgage paperwork and real estate deeds, and debts. The last thing you want for your family is to be unable to locate an important document.

Lanning Financial Inc. is a registered investment adviser. Information presented is for educational purposes only and does not intend to make an offer or solicitation for the sale or purchase of any specific securities, investments, or investment strategies. Investments involve risk and, unless otherwise stated, are not guaranteed. Be sure to first consult with a qualified financial adviser and/or tax professional before implementing any strategy discussed herein. Past performance is not indicative of future performance.