For purposes of this article it is assumed that your assets, including life insurance proceeds, are under the taxable level for estate and gift tax guidelines. If your estate is over the said guidelines more extensive and elaborate estate planning is needed than can be discussed herein. Your estate includes all assets held by you including your solely owned residence(s), stocks, bank accounts, collectibles, and other personal goods.

Be sure to appraise your belongings regularly. Many times increasing values put estates over the million dollar mark resulting in a huge estate tax impact that has not been prepared for. Also take into account your life insurance policies when adding up your estate. Proceeds of life insurance policies may be best passed to your decedents if the proceeds could put your spouse's estate over the taxable guidelines level. A trained estate attorney can prevent the pitfalls of estate planning.

Too many times I have met with people for an initial consultation only to have them tell me that they fear that documenting their estate planning wishes would lead to their death. It is an old world attitude that would destroy their estates in this modern world of written documents and court supervised estates. When you fail to follow through and execute your estate document the state takes over in determining the distribution of your assets. This is known as an Intestate Estate and usually results in higher legal and probate costs in administering such an estate. Executing estate documents should help to extend your life by removing the stress of worrying about dealing with your estate.

Testamentary trusts for minor children of the deceased can be included in a Will. If you fail to create these trusts in your will the Probate Court must act to create them on your passing thereby increasing costs and the possibility that the wrong family member controls the Trust. Additionally, your Will can state which Guardian(s) that you wish your children to be placed with upon your passing. Without a Guardianship clause in a properly executed Will document the court must decide the placement of the decedent's children based on a multitude of factors. Battles over Guardianship can deplete the estate's assets that would otherwise go to the decedent's children's for health, education, and welfare.

Preparing a Will should not be taken lightly. Many people believe that standardized forms (or the attorney who did their closing, but is not trained in estate planning) will cover their needs. This often results in gaps in estate planning. Keep in mind that the people you choose as your executor or your children's guardian or trustee are usually your closest family members and friends. These are people who you may be regularly driving or flying with. Not to be morbid but you need to think beyond the first levels and include secondary and, possibly, tertiary executors, guardians, and trustees.

An executor is the person that will be responsible for hiring an attorney for the estate, admitting the will to probate court, and signing all legal documents and checks for the estate. A Guardian and Trustee can be the same person and will be the one who the court appoints to care for the decedent's children and any trust established for those children, respectively.

Married couples usually do mutual wills naming each other as Executor, Guardian, and Trustee. Divorced couples will usually name their ex-spouse for these positions. Failure to do so will likely set the stage for a legal battle over the issue with the court usually favoring the biological parent. You will need to select an alternate in case your spouse does not survive or cannot serve.

Make certain the Trustee you choose is someone who can handle finances and has similar beliefs to yours in raising your children. The trustee holds the purse strings for your child's life. The Probate Court will oversee the trustee's decisions to some extent but it is difficult to replace what is lost when the trustee abuses or wastes the trust funds. Selecting an inappropriate family member as Guardian out of love is not the way to go if that person is unable to handle raising children or handle money. Your children's best interests are paramount in making estate planning decisions.

I leave the beneficiary for last. Most people think the beneficiary is the most important one to place in a Will. It is important to state a beneficiary in your Will but improper estate planning can result in your designated beneficiary having nothing to receive from your estate. A will is only one form of estate planning. Most pensions, stock holdings, mutual funds, and life insurance policies may allow you to state a beneficiary in the policy or holdings. That will allow these assets to pass outside of your estate directly to the designated beneficiary, thus avoiding estate taxes for those assets. Real and personal property, such as a bank account or safe deposit box, may be held in survivorship so that they also pass to the joint or surviving named party on the account outside of probate. Proper planning can avoid higher probate costs and taxes. Keep in mind that Title XIX allows for a "look back" on transfers, potentially negating the transfer, so the time to act is now.

A full estate plan includes, at least, a Will, Living Will, Power of Attorney, and Voluntary Appointment of Conservatorship. Attorney Goldstein offers a Free Initial Consultation so you can determine your estate planning needs. Feel free to call for an appointment.