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Estate Planning Checklist

"Peace of Mind as You Provide for Those Close to You"

What exactly is estate planning? Simply put, it's the means by which you protect and provide for your family and others close to you. Estate planning is like a blueprint of your financial goals, both before and after death. Your estate plan -- or lack of it -- can affect the way you live, especially in retirement years. And, it can make a real difference in the future welfare of your spouse, children, and others you care about.

A good record-keeping system and surprisingly little preliminary work on your part can save time and help reduce the legal expense associated with the preparation of your estate plan. Before seeing your attorney, take some time to organize the information he or she will need to draft your will or trust documents.

By preparing ahead, you'll save legal fees. Most importantly, you'll feel more confident that your attorney has the information necessary to help ensure that these important documents reflect your intentions accurately.

Before Meeting With Your Attorney

Begin by determining your current earnings, eligibility, and estimate of Social Security benefits. Contact the local offices of the Social Security Administration to obtain this information.

In addition, you should note the account numbers of current checking, savings, investment, and retirement accounts. Be sure to include the name and location of the financial institutions where they are held.

Make a note of all outstanding loans and credit purchases.

Estimate the value of business interests (if any).

Next, estimate the value of personal property and important possessions. Art, special collections (stamps, valuable china, rare books, and the like), and other unique possessions fall into this category. And don't forget your pets -- many individuals establish special arrangements for their continuing care.

A Checklist to Help

The checklist below can serve as a frame of reference as you assemble the information your attorney will need. Of course, as you proceed you'll probably find it necessary to supply additional information pertinent to your particular situation.

  • List all assets and liabilities accurately. Include regular payment dates and amounts due.
  • Provide complete information about assets other than cash or securities (real estate, automobiles, and boats are examples). Indicate whether these assets are in your name only or if they are owned jointly with your spouse or another individual. Also, be sure to include the location -- especially out of state -- of each asset.
  • Indicate names, ages, and addresses of family members or friends you intend to name as beneficiaries.
  • If you currently have a will on file with an attorney or financial institution, bring along a copy of the document, if possible.
  • Include explanations, current balances, and projections (if available) of all employee benefit plan entitlements such as 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts, as well as the beneficiary designations of the plans.
  • Supply copies of any gift tax forms previously filed.
  • Provide copies of any important documents, particularly those relating to divorce, annulment, separation, or adoption. Don't overlook deeds of ownership for real estate.
  • If possible, outline how you want your property to pass in each of the following situations:
    • You predecease your spouse
    • Your spouse predeceases you
    • One or more of your children predecease you
    • You predecease a parent or other older relative who may not remain financially independent
  • Consider how you would respond to the following questions:
    • In the event you and your spouse die at the same time (in a common accident, for example), at what ages would you want property to be available to your children without restriction?
    • At this time, should the need arise, whom would you wish to be designated as guardians of your children? If your chosen guardian(s) become unable to care for your children, whom would you want to succeed them?
  • List all charitable organizations (including schools and universities) you expect to mention in your estate plan and the type or amount of property you intend them to receive.
  • Note whether or not you already have indicated your intentions to the planned recipient.
  • Specifically list items of personal property you want particular individuals to have upon your death if you predecease your spouse, and what other dispositions you would make if your spouse predeceases you.
  • Don't underestimate the importance of this step. It can be a mistake to assume that people will simply "work things through" on their own. Often it's helpful to discuss openly with family members and close friends your desire for them to have items of sentimental as well as monetary value.
  • In any case, make certain that your estate planning documents reflect your intentions clearly. This avoids misunderstandings later -- and ensures that a special piece of jewelry or a favorite painting or photograph goes to the individual you have in mind.
  • Think about who you might appoint as executor of your estate. This is an important decision, since the executor is responsible for distributing your assets in the way you specify. The most obvious choice for many individuals is the spouse or oldest child, but you may wish to ask your attorney to explain other options.
  • A professional executor, for example, relieves family members of what can be a considerable responsibility at a time when they may be least able to cope with weighty decisions. And, because a professional executor is impartial, there is less likelihood of a conflict of interest or family resentment that can occur when the executor also is one of the beneficiaries.
  • Some individuals, perhaps unwilling to involve a "stranger" in managing their affairs after death, feel more comfortable naming Co-executors. This designation combines an objective professional (a bank trust officer or an attorney, for example) with input from a family member.
  • Again, your attorney can help you decide what's most appropriate for you.

A Closing Word

Keep in mind that will and trust documents are subject to change at any time according to your direction. The birth of a child, for example, your decision to support a particular cause or charitable organization, a divorce, or a host of other situations can be the reason for a change in your plans. Your attorney can explain what "life events" should prompt a review of your plans to ensure their continuing accuracy.

Above all, don't be concerned that decisions you make now cannot be modified later should circumstances change. Think of your estate plan as a flexible tool you can use to become part of the future of those you care about.

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