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Estate planning is the legal process of preparing for the distribution or transfer of one's estate upon death. An "estate" is the sum total of one's assets in real and personal property. The main instrument providing for estate distributions is a will.
A thorough estate plan should address the following matters:
- Itemization, identification, and distribution of properties to beneficiaries
- Transfer of interests in real property
- Naming and identifying all interested beneficiaries
- Ensuring that minor children are cared for and assigned a guardian
- Instructions for health care and life insurance benefits, as well as organ donations
- Delegating a power of attorney
- Resolving any debts or unpaid taxes
- Arrangements for funeral expenses and proceedings
When to Plan Your Estate
Depending on your current life situation, your estate needs will vary as you accumulate assets over the years. Estate plans should be capable of reflecting your present interests and anticipating your future dispositions.
You should coordinate your estate planning efforts around major life periods and events:
- Age 25 years or younger and unmarried: Most people in this age bracket are not considering estate planning yet. You may wish to consider drafting a will if you are wealthy or possess valuable properties, or are critically ill
- Unmarried life partnerships: If you have a life partner and are unmarried, a will is definitely necessary. The distribution of assets to unmarried partners is generally not provided for by state laws, so an unmarried partner would receive nothing unless specifically provided for
- Married with children: You should provide for the continued care of your spouse and guardianship of minor children who are not yet 18 years of age
- Middle aged or retired status: By this point you should have a will, especially if you own several properties and investment assets. Avoiding probate processes can save time and money for your survivors
- Senior citizens: This is the most vital time period to engage in estate planning. It is preferable to already have a will prepared as you enter into your golden years. A power attorney is recommended, especially if you are ill or debilitated
Supporting your Estate Plans
Be sure that your estate plan is fully verifiable by collecting contact information, bank account receipts, and other important documents. Copies of insurance policies and marriage agreements should be kept for further reference. Contact a lawyer who can help you prepare the necessary supporting information to avoid disputes over distributions.