Estate Planning Checklist

Estate planning is the effective accumulation, conservation, and distribution of assets pursuant to the testator's wishes. Common problems with estate planning include: no will; lack of liquidity to pay administrative costs, taxes, and other expenses, which may cause a forced sale of assets below their intrinsic worth; improper disposition of assets, where a beneficiary may get the wrong property or the beneficiary may receive the property at an immature age. Liquidity is needed to pay federal and state estate taxes, income taxes on pension distributions, probate and administrative costs, payment of outstanding debts, and to pay specific cash bequests, provide family support, and to pay possible generation-skipping transfer taxes, and funds required to continue the operation of a family business.

This article lists some of the things that you should consider when contemplating the execution of your will, to give you an idea of what information you need to gather and to start thinking about how you want your property distributed after you die. This article is not intended to be all-inclusive, but to just give you a better idea of what needs to be done and the basics of writing a will.

Estate planning goals include:

If you die intestate, your property will be distributed to your legal heirs; otherwise your property will be distributed to your beneficiaries that you designate in your will. In either case, your estate will have to be administered by someone—if you die intestate, then the court will appoint an administrator to manage your estate. If you have a will, then you can appoint a personal representative, also known as an executor, to manage your estate. In either case, it would be helpful to have pertinent information that will allow the personal representative — either the court administrator or the executor — to distribute your property, pay your debts and taxes, and to close your estate. Obviously, your personal representative will have an easier job if you provide her with the necessary information, which should include the following:

You should notify someone or several people where this information can be found.

When choosing a personal representative, consider that the personal representative must be able to collect all the assets, pay all obligations, then distribute the assets to the beneficiaries. This may be simple for small estates, but, depending on the property to be transferred, may be more complex and time-consuming. The personal representative should not have any conflict of interest in managing the estate. The personal representative must have the time and inclination to manage the estate process, which may take months or longer. The personal representative should both know the family members and get along with them well to avoid problems. The personal representative may also be required to live in the same state as the testator unless he is a close family member.

Wills — A Quick Overview

A will may not be hard to write—especially if your estate is small and your estate plan is simple then you could probably write your own will, without too much difficulty, especially if you use books or software that take you through the will creation step-by-step. Many of the legal perils in the past were artificial, created by a legal system that served to enrich lawyers at the expense of other people's estates. However, the modern trend has been to give paramount significance to the testator's intent rather than to thwart the testator's intent because of harmless errors; hence, if you are clear in your intentions, both in your will and to your family members, then your will should be carried out largely in accordance with your wishes, especially if you are giving most of your property to your family members.

If you live in a state that provides a statutory will, then you can probably use that if your estate is simple. The statutory will is a free will created by state law, and is available in California, Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The testator only needs to fill out the will and have it witnessed, dated, and signed.

The most significant legal requirements for a will include:

In almost all states, to execute your will, you generally must have 2 witnesses actually see you sign your will and know that you are signing your will and you, in turn, must see them sign their signatures as witnesses. Even if some states, such as Pennsylvania, do not require witnesses, it would be prudent to use them anyway, since they may help to prevent will challenges.

You may also want to attach a self-proving affidavit that is notarized to create what is called a self-proving will, which eliminates the need to have your witnesses testify as to their signatures when the will is probated, since they may not survive you.

Wills should be at least reviewed for possible updates:

Writing Your Will

When writing your will:

Executors

Will Sections

Will Safekeeping