Successful Estate Planning

April 3, 2014

By Ben Hartman, HunterMaclean

Special to Elegant Island Living

Although we are all familiar with Ben Franklin’s truism that nothing is certain but death and taxes, it appears that few of us take it to heart. Many Americans avoid estate planning, which can have unintended consequences for heirs.

Surveys show that while around 60 percent of Americans believe that all adults should have estate plans, only about 40 percent have one. Many think it will be a complex and difficult undertaking.

Estate planning does not need to be complicated, but it does need three essential elements: it needs to be completed, comprehensive and current. If you have an estate plan, you have already accomplished the first basic requirement—it needs to be in place. Estate plans also need to be thorough and up-to-date. Careful, proactive estate planning can simplify matters for your heirs at a time when they need it most.

Working with your estate planner, you can clearly indicate your intentions and structure your affairs so that your estate passes to your heirs with a minimum of confusion, conflict and effort. You can simplify much of the transfer in how you structure your assets and beneficiaries.

Although your goal may be to easily facilitate your heirs’ inheritance, you still need to be thorough. Make sure that your planners have a global picture of all of your assets, liabilities, and beneficiaries, and incorporate instructions for any possible outcomes or variations that you can foresee. Within that structure, you can do a lot to streamline the probate process.

Here are a few important steps to keep in mind:

1) Determine what you want to achieve and communicate your wishes to your attorney, accountant, and financial advisor. With proper input and communication, they will then be able to structure your estate plan so that your desires are clearly and effectively executed. Collaboration yields the best results. Estate plans are as varied as the individuals and families that are crafting the plans.

2) Choose your executor, trustees, guardians for minor children, and attorney-in-fact wisely. Once you have selected the people to be named in your estate planning documents, make sure they know they are named and how they can access the necessary documents. You can ask someone to fulfill more than one role; just make sure that they understand the requirements and responsibilities of each role.

3) Make sure you have shared a global view of your assets with your financial planner, insurance agent, and legal counsel. Working together, your advisers can determine that everything in your will, life insurance, retirement assets, and your estate documents are reconcilable. Pay particular attention to beneficiary designations, titles to real estate, titles to accounts, and paid-on-death designations.

4) Update your estate plan regularly. At least once a year, make sure everything in your will is up to date, including investment and bank statements. And if your personal situation changes—for example, you get divorced, married or remarried—make sure to update your will immediately.

The best estate plan fully incorporates your assets and your intentions and streamlines the process of transfer. In so doing, you will make circumstances more straightforward for your beneficiaries. Consulting with an experienced estate planner can help you achieve your goals in a thorough and thoughtful way.

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