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Estate Plan | Steps in the Estate Planning Process

In beginning an estate plan, an individual should do some preliminary work of his own before meeting with an attorney to prepare the needed documents.

First, an individual should compile a list of his or her major assets, their location, value and ownership type (i.e. joint tenancy). Examples of major assets include bank accounts, investments, real property, insurance policies and vehicles. An individual can also include intrinsic items such as family heirlooms if he or she so chooses.

Next, the individual should make a list of those people and/or organizations he wants to receive the property of the estate. In doing so, be sure to list the amount of percentage of property which goes to each beneficiary, their full name, address and relationship to you. Also, it is important to note that an individual can dispose of his or her property by gifting it to others during his lifetime. Under the federal tax laws, an individual can gift up to $13,000 per donee without triggering taxes to the donee recipient or causing the donor to file a gift tax return.† A plan that includes gifts given before death may help simplify the process at death by reducing the size and complexity of the estate. While making asset distribution decisions, discuss and consult with your family and friends to avoid surprise or stress at the time of your death.

The next step will be to schedule a meeting with a competent estate planning attorney and begin drafting a will, which is the basic document of the estate planning process. The first major decision to make is the nomination of an executor who will administer your estate after your death. The most common choices for a named executor are the individual’s spouse, and adult child or a family friend. As the position entails a significant amount of time and responsibility, be sure to choose the person who is best suited for the job. While making this decision, it is also important to name an alternate executor who will administer the will if the first named executor is unable to do so.

Under judicial oversight, an executor will file all needed documents with the court, attend all legal proceedings, pay the claims of the estate and disburse the decedent’s property. If an executor is not named or is unable to complete his duties, the court will appoint an estate administrator. The court-appointed administrator may be a family member of the decedent, but does not have to be, as the matter is at the court’s discretion. Therefore, it is important to name both an executor and an alternate in your will to make sure your wishes are made known and carried on after your death. Primarily to avoid confusion, the legal community uses the phrase “personal representative” to collectively refer to both executors and administrators.

The next decision to be made is to determine upon whom guardianship of the minor children will be granted, if applicable. As with choosing a personal representative, an individual should name an alternate guardian in his will to assure that his children are well cared for. If the parents are divorced and the surviving parent is considered to be “fit,” the court will normally grant guardianship to the surviving parent regardless of the testator's wishes.

†. I.R.C. 2503(b).