Do You have to Go through Probate when Someone Dies? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Probate involves assets, debts and distribution. The administration of a probate estate involves gathering all assets owned by the decedent, all claims owed to the decedent and the payments of all liabilities owed by the decedent or the estate of the decedent and the distribution of remaining assets to beneficiaries. If this sounds complicated, that is because it is, according to the article “The probate talk: Administrators, creditors and beneficiaries need to know” from The Dallas Morning News.

The admission of a decedent’s will to probate may be challenged for up to two years from the date it was admitted to probate. Many people dismiss this concern, because they believe they have done everything they could to avoid probate, from assigning beneficiary designations to creating trusts. Those are necessary steps in estate planning, but there are some possibilities that executors and beneficiaries need to know.

Any creditor can open a probate estate and sue to pull assets back into the estate. A disappointed heir can sue the executor/administrator and claim that designations and transfers were made when the decedent was incapacitated, unduly influenced or the victim of fraud.

It is very important that the administrator handles estate matters with meticulous attention to detail, documenting every transaction, maintaining scrupulous records and steering clear of anything that might even appear to be self-dealing. The administrator has a fiduciary duty to keep the beneficiaries of the estate reasonably informed of the process, act promptly and diligently administer and settle the estate.

The administrator must also be in a position to account for all revenue received, money spent and assets sold. The estate’s property must not be mixed in any way with the administrator’s own property or funds or business interests.

The administrator may not engage in any self-dealing. No matter how easily it may be to justify making a transaction, buying any of the estate’s assets for their own benefit or using their own accounts to temporarily hold money, is not permitted.

The administrator must obtain a separate tax identification number from the IRS, known as an EIN, for the probate estate. This is the identification number used to open an estate bank account to hold the estate’s cash and any investment grade assets. The account has to be properly named, on behalf of the probate estate. Anything that is cash must pass through the estate account, and every single receipt and disbursement should be documented. There is no room for fuzzy accounting in an estate administration, as any estate planning lawyer will advise.

Distributions do not get made, until all creditors are paid. This may not win the administrator any popularity contests, but it is required. No creditors are paid until the taxes are paid—the last year’s taxes for the last year the decedent was alive, and the estate taxes. The administrator may be held personally liable, if money is paid out to creditors or beneficiaries and there is not enough money in the estate to pay taxes.

If the estate contains multiple properties in different states, probate must be done in all of those different states. If it is a large complex estate, an estate planning attorney will be a valuable resource in helping to avoid pitfalls, minor or major.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (May 16, 2021) “The probate talk: Administrators, creditors and beneficiaries need to know”

 

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Do QTIP Trusts Help avoid Estate Taxes? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Using a QTIP trust allows one spouse to create a trust to benefit the surviving spouse, while providing the surviving spouse with up to nine months to decide how to treat the gift for tax purposes, explains a recent article “How Certain Trusts Soften The Blow Of Estate Tax Increases” from Financial Advisor. This flexibility is just one reason for this trust’s popularity. However, while the QTIP election can be made on the 2021 gift tax return, which is filed in 2022, the choice as to how much of the transfer will be subject to tax can be made in 2022.

The current estate and gift tax exemption of $11.7 per individual is slated to sunset in 2025, but the current legislative mood may curtail that legislation sooner. Right now, flexibility is paramount.

The surviving spouse is named as the primary beneficiary of the trust and must be the only beneficiary of the trust during the lifetime of the surviving spouse, in terms of both receiving income or principal from the trust.

If the decision is made to treat the trust as a QTIP trust, a gift to the trust is eligible for the marital deduction and is not taxable. It does not use up any of the donor’s gift tax exclusion. That flexibility to make a transfer today and decide later whether it uses any lifetime exemption is something most people don’t know about. A QTIP can also protect the recipient spouse and the principal from any creditors.

There are conditions and limitations to this strategy. If the QTIP election is not made, all net trust income must be distributed to the beneficiary spouse. There is also no flexibility for the trust income to be accumulated or distributed directly to descendants.

The property over which the QTIP election is made is included in the estate of the surviving spouse.

The election can be made over the entire asset or only a portion of the asset transferred to the trust. The option to apply only a portion of the transfer makes it more tax efficient. For generation skipping-trust purposes, an election can be made to use the transferor spouse’s GST exemption when the decision about the QTIP election is made.

QTIPs are not the solution for everyone, but they may be the best option for many people while the people in Washington, D.C. determine the immediate future of the estate tax.

There are many Americans who are moving forward with making gifts using the current gift tax exclusion, using spousal lifetime access trusts (SLATs). However, the QTIP elections remain a way to hedge against the risk of being on the hook for a substantial gift tax, if there is a reduction in the federal estate tax exemptions.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to learn if a QTIP or another type of trust is appropriate for you. Note that these are complex planning strategies, and they must work in tandem with the rest of your estate plan.

Reference: Financial Advisor (May 24, 2021) “How Certain Trusts Soften The Blow Of Estate Tax Increases”

 

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Your Will and Estate Planning Checklist – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Dying without a Last Will and Testament creates additional costs and eliminates any chance your wishes for loved ones will be followed after your death. Typically, people think about Wills when they marry or have children, and then do not think about Wills or estate plans until they retire. While a Will is important, there are other estate planning documents that are just as important, says the recent article “10 Steps to Writing a Will” from U.S. News & World Report.

Most assets, including retirement accounts and insurance policy proceeds, can be transferred to heirs outside of a Will, if they have designated beneficiaries. However, the outcome of an estate may be more impacted by Power of Attorney for financial matters and Medical Power of Attorney documents.

Here are ten specific tasks that need to be completed for your Will to be effective. Remember, if the Will does not comply with your state’s estate law, it can be declared invalid.

  1. Find an estate planning attorney who is experienced with the laws of your state.
  2. Select beneficiaries for your Will.
  3. Check beneficiaries on non-probate assets to make sure they are current.
  4. Decide who will be the executor of your Will.
  5. Name a guardian for minor children, if yours are still young.
  6. Make a letter describing possessions and who you want to receive them. Be very specific.

There are also tasks for your own care while you are living, in case of incapacity:

  1. Name a person for the Power of Attorney role. They will be your representative for legal and financial matters, but only while you are living.
  2. Name a person for the Medical Power of Attorney to make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot.
  3. Create an Advance Directive, also known as a Living Will, to explain your wishes for medical care, particularly concerning end-of-life care.
  4. Discuss these roles and their responsibilities with the people you have chosen, and make sure they are willing to serve.

Be realistic about the people you are naming to receive your property. If you have a child who is not good with managing money, a trust can be set up to distribute assets according to your wishes: by age or accomplishments, like finishing college, going to rehab, or maintaining a steady work history.

Do not forget to tell family members where they can find your Will and other estate documents. You should also talk with them about your digital assets. If accounts are protected by passwords or facial recognition, find out if the digital platform has a process for your executor to legally obtain access to your digital assets.

Finally, do not neglect updating your Will every three to four years or anytime you have a major life event. An estate plan is like a house: it needs regular maintenance. Old Wills can disinherit family members or lead to the wrong person being in charge of your estate. An experienced estate planning attorney will make the process easier and straightforward for you and your loved ones.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 13, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

 

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Do You Have to Do Probate when Someone Dies? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Probate is a Latin term meaning “to prove.” Legally, a deceased person may not own property, so the moment a person dies, the property they owned while living is in a legal state of limbo. The rightful owners must prove their ownership in court, explains the article “Wills and Probate” from Southlake Style. Probate refers to the legal process that recognizes a person’s death, proves whether or not a valid last will exists and who is entitled to assets the decedent owned while they were living.

The probate court oversees the payment of the decedent’s debts, as well as the distribution of their assets. The court’s role is to facilitate this process and protect the interests of all creditors and beneficiaries of the estate. The process is known as “probate administration.”

Having a last will does not automatically transfer property. The last will must be properly probated first. If there is a last will, the estate is described as “testate.” The last will must contain certain language and have been properly executed by the testator (the decedent) and the witnesses. Every state has its own estate laws. Therefore, to be valid, the last will must follow the rules of the person’s state. A last will that is valid in one state may be invalid in another.

The court must give its approval that the last will is valid and confirm the executor is suited to perform their duties. Texas is one of a few states that allow for independent administration, where the court appoints an administrator who submits an inventory of assets and liabilities. The administration goes on with no need for probate judge’s approval, as long as the last will contains the specific language to qualify.

If there was no last will, the estate is considered to be “intestate” and the laws of the state determine who inherits what assets. The laws rely on the relationship between the decedent and the genetic or bloodline family members. An estranged relative could end up with everything. The estate distribution is more likely to be challenged if there is no last will, causing additional family grief, stress and expenses.

The last will should name an executor or administrator to carry out the terms of the last will. The executor can be a family member or a trusted friend, as long as they are known to be honest and able to manage financial and legal transactions. Administering an estate takes time, depending upon the complexity of the estate and how the person managed the business side of their lives. The executor pays bills, may need to sell a home and also deals with any creditors.

The smart estate plan includes assets that are not transferrable by the last will. These are known as “non-probate” assets and go directly to the heirs, if the beneficiary designation is properly done. They can include life insurance proceeds, pensions, 401(k)s, bank accounts and any asset with a beneficiary designation. If all of the assets in an estate are non-probate assets, assets of the estate are easily and usually quickly distributed. Many people accomplish this through the use of a Living Trust.

Every person’s life is different, and so is their estate plan. Family dynamics, the amount of assets owned and how they are owned will impact how the estate is distributed. Start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare for the future.

Reference: Southlake Style (May 17, 2021) “Wills and Probate”

 

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Have Estate Planning Conversations with Aging Parents – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Let us start with this idea: maybe your parents are going to leave you a generous bequest as part of their estate plan. Do you know this for a fact, or is it wishful thinking? The only way to know, advises a recent article from Yahoo! Finance titled “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate (Without Making It Awkward),” is to have a conversation, or a series of conversations. It is not the first awkward conversation you will have with your parents, but it may be a bit stickier than you expect.

No matter how you approach it, this is a sensitive issue. How do you avoid appearing greedy or selfish? There is actually a lot more to know beyond the inheritance issue. You need to know how to ensure that your parents’ wishes are carried out, while they are living as well as after their deaths.

It will be helpful to be aware that the prospective inheritance amount may change over the course of your parents’ remaining lives. You also do not want your parents thinking that you consider yourself entitled in any way to the assets they have built over the course of their lives.

Instead, start the conversation by talking about their estate plan. Explain that you want to be able to follow their instructions. You might reference an article or blog post that you have read about the importance of estate planning. You can also talk about your own estate plan, explaining that you have created an estate plan to protect your children and family members and to be sure that your instructions are followed.

Do not be afraid to acknowledge how difficult this conversation is for you. Reassure them that you are not looking forward to their demise, but you have concerns about how things will work out when the time does come.

Depending upon your family dynamics, holidays may be a good time to address estate planning. This provides an opportunity for all family members to be included and for concerns and plans to be shared among involved siblings.

This does not mean discussing inheritances at the dinner table. Focus on what your parents’ wishes are and include a conversation about what values they would like to pass on to the next generation. If there are family histories or stories to share, this is also part of your inheritance.

Regardless of when or how you approach the topic, you do want to be sure your parents have a plan in place, so there is a path for whoever will be taking care of them and their assets. Ask if they have these key legal documents:

  • A Last Will, also known as a Last Will and Testament
  • A Power of Attorney to designate someone to make financial and legal decisions, if they are not able to do so for themselves.
  • A Living Will or health care directive that will designate someone who can make healthcare decisions and address end of life care for them.

Ask where your parents keep these documents, and how you can find them when the time comes. Are they in your father’s night table, or in a lockbox in the attic? If they have a financial advisor or estate planning attorney, who is that person? You’ll need to be able to access the documents and speak with their estate planning attorney.

A few awkward moments now will help all of you as your parents, and you, move through the coming stages of life.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (March 25, 2021) “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate (Without Making It Awkward)”

 

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Can a Charity Be a Beneficiary of an Estate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The interest in charitable giving increased in 2020 for two reasons. One was a dramatic increase in need as a result of the COVID pandemic, reports The Tax Advisor’s article “Charitable income tax deductions for trusts and estates.” The other was more pragmatic from a tax planning perspective. The CARES Act increased the amounts of charitable contributions that may be deducted from taxes by individuals and corporations.

What if a person wishes to make a donation from the assets that are held in trust? Is that still an income tax deduction? It depends.

The rules for donations from trusts are substantially different than those for charitable contribution deductions for individuals and corporations. The IRS code allows an estate or nongrantor trust to make a deduction which, if pursuant to the terms of the governing instrument, is paid for a purpose specified in Section 170(c). For trusts created on or before October 9, 1969, the IRS code expands the scope of the deduction to allow for a deduction of the gross income set aside permanently for charitable purposes.

If the trust or estate allows for payments to be made for charity, then donations from a trust are allowed and may be tax deductions. Otherwise, they cannot be deducted.

If the trust or estate allows distributions for charity, the type of asset contributed and how it was acquired by the trust or estate determines whether a tax deduction for a charitable donation is permitted. Here are some basic rules, but every situation is different and requires the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Cash donations. A trust or estate making cash donations may deduct to the extent of the lesser of the taxable income for the year or the amount of the contribution.

Noncash assets purchased by the trust/estate: If the trust or estate purchased marketable securities with income, the cost basis of the asset is considered the amount contributed from gross income. The trust or estate cannot avoid recognizing capital gain on a noncash asset that is donated, while also deducting the full value of the asset contributed. The trust or estate’s deduction is limited to the asset’s cost basis.

Noncash assets contributed to the trust/estate: If the trust or estate acquired an asset it wants to donate to charity as part of the funding of the fiduciary arrangement, no charity deduction is permitted. The asset that is part of the trust or estate’s corpus, the principal of the estate, is not gross income.

The order of charitable deductions, compared to distribution deductions, can cause a great deal of complexity in tax planning and reporting. Required distributions to noncharitable beneficiaries must be accounted for first, and the charitable deduction is not taken into account in calculating distributable net income. The recipients of the distributions do not get the benefit of the deduction. The trust or the estate does.

Charitable distributions are considered next, which may offset any remaining taxable income. Last are discretionary distributions to noncharitable beneficiaries, so these beneficiaries may receive the largest benefit from any charitable deduction.

If the trust claims a charitable deduction, it must file form 1041A for the relevant tax year, unless it meets any of the exceptions noted in the instructions in the form.

These are complex estate and tax matters, requiring the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney for optimal results.

Reference: The Tax Advisor (March 1, 2021) “Charitable income tax deductions for trusts and estates”

 

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What are the Stages of Probate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Probate is a court-supervised process occurring after your death. It takes place in the state where you were a resident at the time of your death and addresses your estate—all of your financial assets, real estate, personal belongings, debts and unpaid taxes. If you have an estate plan, your last will names an executor, the person who takes charge of your estate and settles your affairs, explains the article “Understanding Probate” from Pike County Courier. How exactly does the probate process work?

If your estate is subject to probate, your estate planning attorney files an application for the probate of your last will with the local court. The application, known as a petition, is brought to the probate court, along with the last will. That is also usually when the petitioner files an application for the appointment of the executor of your estate.

First, the court must rule on the validity of the last will. Does it meet all of the state’s requirements? Was it witnessed properly? If the last will meets the state’s requirements, then the court deems it valid and addresses the application for the executor. That person must also meet the legal requirements of your state. If the court agrees that the person is fit to serve, it approves the application.

The executor plays a very important role in settling your estate. The executor is usually a spouse or a close family member. However, there are situations when naming an attorney or a bank is a better option. The person needs to be completely trustworthy. Your fiduciary will have a legal responsibility to be honest, impartial and put your estate’s well-being above the fiduciary’s own. If they do not have a good grasp of financial matters, the fiduciary must have the common sense to ask for expert help when needed.

Here are some of the tasks the fiduciary must address:

  • Finding and gathering assets and liabilities
  • Inventorying and appraising assets
  • Filing the estate tax return and your last tax return
  • Paying debts, managing creditors and paying taxes
  • Distributing assets
  • Providing a detailed report of the estate settlement to the court and any other parties

What is the probate court’s role in this part of the process? It depends upon the state. The probate court is more involved in some states than in others. If the state allows for a less formal process, it is simpler and faster. If the estate is complicated with multiple properties, significant assets and multiple heirs, probate can take years.

If there is no executor named in your last will, the court will appoint an administrator. If you do not have a last will, the court will also appoint an administrator to settle your estate following the laws of the state. This is the worst possible scenario, since your assets may be distributed in ways you never wished.

Does all of your estate go through the probate process? With proper estate planning, many assets can be taken out of your probate estate, allowing them to be distributed faster and easier. How assets are titled determines whether they go through probate. Any assets with named beneficiaries pass directly to those beneficiaries and are outside of the estate. That includes life insurance policies and retirement plans with named beneficiaries. It also includes assets titled “jointly with rights of survivorship,” which is how most people own their homes.

Your estate planning attorney will discuss how the probate process works in your state and how to prepare a last will and any needed trusts to distribute your assets as efficiently as possible.

Reference: Pike County Courier (March 4, 2021) “Understanding Probate”

 

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How Do I Disinherit My Child? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Disinheriting a child or any person trying to gain access to your assets after you have died requires skilled estate planning. The things that can be done before you die to protect your estate are the subjects of a recent article “Disinheriting a child” from Westfair Online. It should be noted that if you anticipate a challenge to your will, or if you suspect claims will emerge after you pass, it will be wise to prepare your estate and family members for the legal, financial and emotional aspects of an estate battle.

Here are some of the steps to consider.

Avoiding probate. The probate estate includes assets that are controlled by your Last Will and Testament on the day you die. It does not include assets where there are named beneficiaries. Such assets pass directly to beneficiaries.

Before a will can be executed, it must go through probate. Part of the probate process is the notification of any individuals who may be entitled to receive assets. If you pass away without a will, the estate still needs to be probated and those individuals must still be provided with a notice of your passing and the distribution of your assets. If you had intended to disinherit someone and did not take the necessary steps, it is as if you have issued an invitation to them.

Using a revocable trust. Trusts are used to remove assets from probate estates. A revocable trust is a trust that allows you to maintain complete control over the assets in the trust, while you are living. When you die, the trust does not go through probate and no one needs to be notified of the trust’s existence or its terms, if you so specify and state law permits. Your wishes and assets may remain private. This is especially useful, if you want to disinherit someone.

The revocable trust is not immune from contest, but it makes the challenging more difficult.

Changing titles to joint ownership and naming beneficiaries. Changing your bank, investment and real estate property ownership to joint ownership is a way to avoid probate and have assets pass directly to your intended beneficiaries. However, there are complications to this strategy. If the person you add to an account has money problems, your assets are now available to their creditors. If the person on the account goes through a divorce, your assets are legally available to their spouse. And if the joint owner should die before you, any protection you may have obtained is gone. A trust may be a better solution.

Review your retirement plans and any other assets that allow you to name a beneficiary to ensure that the person who will receive these assets is still the person you want.

What about a no-contest clause? It seems like a simple solution—by including a no-contest clause, often referred to as an “in terrorem” clause, anyone who seeks to contest the will immediately forfeits any distribution to that person, if they are not successful in the will contest. However, what if they are successful in the will contest?

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about these and other strategies to defuse a disinherited person’s potential claims. Disinheriting a child sparks many estate battles, so preparations need to be made to protect the family and the estate.

Reference: Westfair Online (Jan. 26, 2021) “Disinheriting a child”

 

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The Wrong Power of Attorney Could Lead to a Bad Outcome – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

There are two different types of advance directives, and they have very different purposes, as explained in the article that asks “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?” from Next Avenue. Less than a third of retirees have a financial power of attorney, according to a study done by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Most people do not even understand what these documents do, which is critically important, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Two types of Durable Power of Attorney for Finance. The power of attorney for finance can be “springing” or “immediate.” The Durable POA refers to the fact that this POA will endure after you have lost mental or physical capacity, whether the condition is permanent or temporary. It lists when the powers are to be granted to the person of your choosing and the power ends upon your death.

The “immediate” Durable POA is effective the moment you sign the document. The “springing” Durable POA does not become effective, unless two physicians examine you and both determine that you cannot manage independently anymore. In the case of the “springing” POA, the person you name cannot do anything on your behalf without two doctors providing letters saying you lack legal capacity.

You might prefer the springing document because you are concerned that the person you have named to be your agent might take advantage of you. They could legally go to your bank and add their name to your accounts without your permission or even awareness. Some people decide to name their spouse as their immediate agent, and if anything happens to the spouse, the successor agents are the ones who need to get doctors’ letters. If you need doctors’ letters before the person you name can help you, ask your estate planning attorney for guidance.

The type of impairment that requires the use of a POA for finance can happen unexpectedly. It could include you and your spouse at the same time. If you were both exposed to Covid-19 and became sick, or if you were both in a serious car accident, this kind of planning would be helpful for your family.

It is also important to choose the right person to be your POA. Ask yourself this question: If you gave this person your checkbook and asked them to pay your bills on time for a few months, would you expect that they would be able to do the job without any issues? If you feel any sense of incompetence or even mistrust, you should consider another person to be your representative.

If you should recover from your incapacity, your POA is required to turn everything back to you when you ask. If you are concerned this person will not do this, you need to consider another person.

Broad powers are granted by a Durable POA. They allow your representative to buy property on your behalf and sell your property, including your home, manage your debt and Social Security benefits, file tax returns and handle any assets not named in a trust, such as your retirement accounts.

The executor of your will, your trustee, and Durable POA are often the same person. They have the responsibility to manage all of your assets, so they need to know where all of your important records can be found. They need to know that you have given them this role and you need to be sure they are prepared and willing to accept the responsibilities involved.

Your advance directive documents are only as good as the individuals you name to implement them. Family members or trusted friends who have no experience managing money or assets may not be the right choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you to make a good decision.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 5, 2020) “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?”

 

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Reviewing Your Estate Plan Protects Goals, Family – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Transferring the management of assets if and when you are unable to manage them yourself because of disability or death is the basic reason for an estate plan. This goes for people with $100 or $100 million. You already have an estate plan, because every state has laws addressing how assets are managed and who will inherit your assets, known as the Laws of Intestacy, if you do not have a will created. However, the estate plan created by your state’s laws might not be what you want, explains the article “Auditing Your Estate Plan” appearing in Forbes.

To take more control over your estate, you will want to have an estate planning attorney create an estate plan drafted to achieve your goals. To do so, you will need to start by defining your estate planning objectives. What are you trying to accomplish?

  • Provide for a surviving spouse or family
  • Save on income taxes now
  • Save on estate and gift taxes later
  • Provide for children later
  • Bequeath assets to a charity
  • Provide for retirement income, and/or
  • Protect assets and beneficiaries from creditors.

A review of your estate plan, especially if you have not done so in more than three years, will show whether any of your goals have changed. You will need to review wills, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms, insurance policies and joint accounts.

Preparing for incapacity is just as important as distributing assets. Who should manage your medical, financial and legal affairs? Designating someone, or more than one person, to act on your behalf, and making your wishes clear and enforceable with estate planning documents, will give you and your loved ones security. You are ready, and they will be ready to help you, if something unexpected occurs.

There are a few more steps, if your estate plan needs to be revised:

  • Make the plan, based on your goals,
  • Engage the people, including an estate planning attorney, to execute the plan,
  • Have a will updated and executed, along with other necessary documents,
  • Re-title assets as needed and complete any changes to beneficiary designations, and
  • Schedule a review of your estate plan every few years and more frequently if there are large changes to tax laws or your life circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

 

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