Estate Planning FAQ
Estate planning is a process involving the counsel of professional advisors who are familiar with your goals and concerns, your assets and how they are owned, and your family structure. It can involve the services of a variety of professionals, including your lawyer, accountant, financial planner, life insurance advisor, banker and broker.
Estate planning covers the transfer of property at death as well as a variety of other personal matters and may or may not involve tax planning. The core document most often associated with this process is your will.
If you die intestate (without a will), your state's laws of descent and distribution will determine who receives your property by default. These laws vary from state to state, but typically the distribution would be to your spouse and children, or if none, to other family members. A state's plan often reflects the legislature's guess as to how most people would dispose of their estates and builds in protections for certain beneficiaries, particularly minor children. That plan may or may not reflect your actual wishes, and some of the built-in protections may not be necessary in a harmonious family setting. A will allows you to alter the state's default plan to suit your personal preferences. It also permits you to exercise control over a myriad of personal decisions that broad and general state default provisions cannot address.
A will provides for the distribution of certain property owned by you at the time of your death, and generally you may dispose of such property in any manner you choose.
A will does not govern the transfer of certain types of assets, called non-probate property, which by operation of law (title) or contract (such as a beneficiary designation) pass to someone other than your estate on your death. For example, real estate and other assets owned with rights of survivorship pass automatically to the surviving owner. Likewise, an IRA or insurance policy payable to a named beneficiary passes to that named beneficiary regardless of your will.
- Probate is the court-supervised process of administering your estate and transferring your property at death pursuant to the terms of your will.
- Probate is the formal legal process that gives recognition to a will and appoints the executor or personal representative who will administer the estate and distribute assets to the intended beneficiaries.
- The basic job of administration and accounting for assets must be done whether the estate is handled by an executor in probate or whether probate is avoided because all assets were transferred to a living trust during lifetime or jointly owned.
- In planning your estate, more important than minimizing probate is minimizing the real issues that can make probate difficult, such as lawsuits by heirs