Many people mistakenly think that estate planning only involves the writing of a will. Estate planning, however, can also involve financial, tax, medical and business planning. A will is part of the planning process, but you will need other documents as well to fully address your estate planning needs.
Who needs estate planning?
You do—whether your estate is large or small. Either way, you should designate someone to manage your assets and make health care and personal care decisions for you if you ever become unable to do so for yourself.
If your estate is small, you may simply focus on who will receive your assets after your death, and who should manage your estate, pay your last debts and handle the distribution of your assets.
If your estate is large, your attorney will also discuss various ways of preserving your assets for your beneficiaries and of reducing or postponing the amount of estate tax which otherwise might be payable after your death.
If you fail to plan ahead, a judge may be needed to appoint someone to handle your assets and personal care. Your assets then will be distributed to your heirs according to a set of rules known as intestate succession.
Contrary to popular myth, everything does not automatically go to the state if you die without a will. Your relatives, no matter how remote, and, in some cases, the relatives of your spouse will have priority in inheritance ahead of the state.
Still, they may not be your choice of heirs; an estate plan gives you much greater control over who will inherit your assets after your death.
What is included in my estate?
Everything you own is included in your estate. This could include assets held in your name alone or jointly with others, assets such as bank accounts, real estate, stocks and bonds, and furniture, cars and jewelry.
Your assets may also include life insurance proceeds, retirement accounts and payments that are due to you (such as a tax refund, outstanding loan or inheritance).
The value of your estate is equal to the “fair market value” of all of your various types of property—after you have deducted your debts (your car loan, for example, and any mortgage on your home.)
The value of your estate is important in determining whether your estate will be subject to inheritance taxes or estate taxes after your death and whether your beneficiaries could later be subject to capital gains taxes. Ensuring that there will be sufficient resources to pay such taxes is another important part of the estate planning process.