1. Assemble a list of your current assets and liabilities.
This will help your estate planning attorney calculate your current net worth and determine if you already have or could potentially have a taxable estate. Your list of assets and liabilities will also indicate if your loved ones will have any difficulty paying the estate tax and/or other debts after your death. If your attorney sees a problem, he or she can suggest options for easing the financial burdens that your loved ones will face during a difficult time. Your list of assets will also help to identify if there are any problems with how your property is titled, what assets will need to be funded into your Revocable Living Trust, and what accounts will need a change of beneficiary to coincide with your foundational estate plan.
2. Determine who will receive your assets.
In 49 states and the District of Columbia you can disinherit anyone you choose except for your spouse unless your spouse waived the right to your estate in a premarital or postmarital agreement (Georgia is the only state where you can disinherit your spouse). Aside from determining your initial beneficiaries, you'll need to decide who will inherit your assets if a beneficiary predeceases you or if a charity you select is not in existence at the time of your death.
3. Decide how and when your beneficiaries will receive your assets.
There are basically two ways to leave your assets to your beneficiaries - outright or in trust. Which way you choose will depend on the beneficiary's age, health, and family and financial situation. Your estate planning attorney will walk you through the needs of each beneficiary and then help you decide what to do for each one. If a trust is recommended for a beneficiary, you'll need to determine how long it should continue - for a fixed number of years, until the beneficiary reaches a specific age or achieves a specific goal, or for the beneficiary's entire lifetime. You'll also need to determine what will happen to the assets remaining in the trust if the initial beneficiary dies before the trust funds have been completely used.
4. Choose someone to be in charge.
This is probably the most important step in creating your foundational estate plan - choosing someone who will act in your best interests if you become disabled, or in your beneficiaries' best interests after you die. Each of the four or five essential estate planning documents will require you to select a fiduciary to act on your behalf either during your lifetime or after your death. Your estate planning attorney will explain the function of each fiduciary and help you decide who to choose in each situation. You'll also need to select one or two backups in case your initial choice isn't able or doesn't want to serve.
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