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Estate Planning 101: Avoiding Probate

Drawing up a will may seem like enough to save your family from the stress and heartache of probate proceedings. Unfortunately, a few poor choices during the planning stage can undermine your final wishes. Knowing the most common issues can help you avoid these problems.

Skip the Equal Rule

When it comes to personal assets, it's tempting to take the easy way out and list them as "divide equally" amongst your beneficiaries. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to place a value on personal items, because emotion is just as important as financial value. If you use the "divide equally" clause, your survivors may find themselves in probate over grandma's vase or your wedding band.

If your effects are few or there are a few pieces you know may cause hard feelings, list these items individually in your will and bequeath them to specific people. This helps avoid the stress of probate during trying times.

Give Your Trustee Power

If listing items individually is too big of a job, you have another option to help your beneficiaries avoid probate. In your will, make sure your personal representative or successor trustee has the power to settle any disputes over your personal items. This allows your survivors to divide up your belongings on their own, with the representative only stepping in to settle any disputes. Your estate attorney can revise the language in your will to ensure your representative has the legal power to handle these disputes.

Don't Leave Anything Out

Before you even sit down to plan out your estate, make sure you have every asset accounted for. Forgotten pension or retirement plans, savings bonds, and other assets are often forgotten over the years, especially if they are smaller accounts. Make a list of every asset you have and those you may have, and follow up on them before you begin to plan.

A forgotten asset that shows up after your passing can throw your estate into disarray, depending on how you divided your assets. Making sure everything is accounted for in the will helps avoid probate and legal proceedings.

Update Annually

Your estate will change, especially as you age and make lifestyle adjustments. You may close out investment accounts, give away personal items, or sell property. An out of date will is just as useless as having no will at all.

Meet with your estate planner at least once a year to go over the language in your will and to make any adjustments. Keeping your estate up to date is one of the most useful things you can do for your survivors.

Estate planning doesn't have to be overwhelming. Taking the time to do it right and keeping it up to date will prevent a lot of stress to your grieving family. Estate laws vary, so it's always best to work with an estate attorney like Stuart W. Moskowitz, Esq., CPA to make sure everything is done properly.