A complete Estate Planning checklist has many parts that should be followed step-by-step to protect your heirs.
Reducing estate taxes often was the most important goal of estate plans in the past. Now, few estates will owe federal estate taxes.
Instead, focus on all of the other goals of the plan. The estate plan determines who receives property after you pass away. The estate plan holder can decide that some property goes to one person for a while, then pass it on to someone else. For example, your spouse can benefit from a house for the rest of his or her life before the property then can be passed on to your children or to charity.
The plan covers not only major assets but also who receives items that have sentimental or emotional value. These assets often are the source of bitter and long-lasting family disputes, so give a lot of thought to how these are allocated in an estate plan.
The plan also determines how much of an estate goes through the probate process. Probate can be time-consuming and expensive, depending on your state. There are ways to avoid probate, so you might want to include some of those methods in your plan.
Some assets avoid probate and aren’t controlled by your will. Your estate plan should be sure that the beneficiary designation forms are reviewed and will transfer the assets to those who are supposed to receive them.
Estate Planning Checklist Includes Nonfinancial Issues
A complete plan also covers nonfinancial issues. If you have minor children, determine who will be their guardians if you and their other parent both pass away.
Decide who will be responsible for your care and manage your assets when you aren’t able to do so because of an illness or an injury. Assets can be protected from your heirs or their creditors through the use of trusts and other methods.
Take burdens off your loved ones by leaving guidelines for your burial services and arrangements.
Estate Planning Checklist Affects the Legacy You Leave
An estate plan determines whether you leave the legacy you want. Lift significant burdens off of the survivors with a well-crafted estate plan and leave them financially secure. To do so, follow the two estate planning checklists below. The first list helps to ensure an estate plan covers all of the key elements. The other list ensures the estate plan does not become obsolete. Review both regularly to determine if update to an estate plan are needed. To learn details about many of these items, refer to the back issues of Retirement Watch or the book, “The New Rules of Estate Planning,” by Bob Carlson.
Estate Planning Checklist
- Do you have an up-to-date will?
- If you have minor children, does the will name one or more guardians for them?
- Have you named an executor for your estate and trustee for any trusts? Do you have alternatives in case the executor cannot serve? Are you still comfortable with your choices?
- Have you considered using a living trust or other methods to avoid probate? Do you recognize all the implications of the strategy?
- If you have a living trust, have you shifted title of your assets to the trust? Many people have living trusts drafted and then don’t transfer legal title of their assets to the trusts. That makes the trusts worthless. Check with your estate planning attorney if you need help on transferring legal title to the trust.
- Does your will take advantage of the marital deduction? Do you overuse the marital deduction? This is less important for most people under the latest tax law. But if you are wealthy, you might want to maximize use of the marital deduction to ensure the maximum amount of assets avoids the federal estate tax.
- Do you use a qualified terminable interest property (QTIP) trust to leave property to your spouse while limiting your spouse’s ability to leave the property to others? Again, this mostly is a concern only to people whose estates might be subject to federal estate taxes.
- Does each spouse have title to enough assets to take advantage of the lifetime estate and gift tax credit? This is another issue this is a concern only to families whose estates might be subject to the federal estate tax.
- Have you determined the amount of life insurance you need and the right type of insurance for you? Life insurance traditionally is used to pay estate taxes, but it has a lot of other uses. You might want life insurance to pay debts or other expenses. Life insurance might be important if you own a small business or investment real estate. It also can be a way to equalize inheritances among loved ones, leave a bequest to charity, or ensure a minimum inheritance.
- Is any life insurance owned by an irrevocable trust, partnership, or beneficiary instead of by you? When the estate might be subject to federal estate taxes, you probably want the life insurance owned by a trust or other entity, so the benefits aren’t taxed.
- Do you have an annual gifting program in which you take advantage of as much of the annual gift tax exclusion as you can afford to do so? This allows you to transfer assets out of your estate without owing any gift taxes or using part of your lifetime estate and gift tax exemption.
- Do you take advantage of unlimited tax-free gifts by paying for the education and medical care of your loved ones?
- Are gifts for minors put into trusts with Crummey provisions to maximize tax-free giving?
- When you make annual gifts, do you give property that is likely to appreciate in the future? That ensures the future appreciation is out of your estate and won’t use up part of your exempt amount.
- Have you considered making gifts above the annual tax-free amount to use your lifetime estate and gift tax exemption? Doing so ensures that you take advantage of the exemption while it still is available. It is set to be reduced after 2024.
- Have you considered giving, now or in your will, directly to your grandchildren to avoid their parents’ estate tax? If you’re very wealthy, these generation-skipping gifts can avoid a layer of estate and gift taxes.
- Have you considered charitable remainder trusts, charitable lead trusts, or charitable gift annuities to create tax deductions for you or your estate while providing for you or your loved ones?
- Have you selected a beneficiary for your IRA or other qualified retirement plan that will maximize income tax deferral?
- If you make charitable gifts in your will, have you considered making those gifts with your IRA or other qualified retirement plan? This often is the most efficient way to make charitable gifts.
- If you own a business, do you have a management succession plan and an ownership succession plan in place?
- Does your business have a buy-sell agreement?
- Have you prepared a book of instructions, checklists and documents for your executor and loved ones? These documents make things easier on your loved ones and help ensure your goals are met. Sample instructions, checklists and documents are available in the workbook, To My Heirs by Bob Carlson.
Estate Plan Update Checklist
If there has been a change in any one or more of the following items since the last review of your estate planning strategy, then it is time to get in touch with your estate planning advisor and update the plan.
- The marital status of you or any of your family members
- The birth or adoption of any children or grandchildren
- A serious illness or disability of you or any other family member
- Changes in the support provided for parents, children, in-laws, or others
- New financial problems of any family members
- Gifts to family members, other than those scheduled in your plan
- Loans to family members, either given or forgiven, other than those in your plan.
- The amount of life insurance provided or beneficiaries of the insurance
- Any aspect of your business ownership, including valuations, sales and new ventures
- The overall value of your estate, other than what was anticipated in the last plan
- You desire to change any of the following details of your will, including:
- Specific property bequested
- Charitable gifts
- Trust arrangements, including beneficiaries, trustees and ownership of property
- Moving, even within the same state, or spending more time at a second residence
- Your choice of beneficiaries or goals for disposition of any of your property
- Death of any beneficiaries, including family and friends
- Has the succession plan for your business changed?
As the preceding estate planning checklists indicate, an estate plan involves a lot more than drafting a simple will. Many people don’t complete or even start their estate plans because they don’t know how to begin. They are overwhelmed by the different items that should be in a plan.
An estate planning checklist is a good way to start an estate plan and to help ensure the plan is complete. Remember that the main goal of an estate plan is to protect both you and your family. Regardless of your age or wealth, you need an estate plan. These checklists will ensure you have a complete plan and that it stays up to date.