Estate Planning Basics

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Less than half of us have a will, according to a survey by Although creating a will is easy to put off, taking action now could spare your loved ones from unnecessary confusion, heartache and expense later on.

Perhaps you think that you don't own enough property to warrant having a will. Everyone needs estate planning. If you die without a will, the intestate laws of your state will determine how your property is distributed and who becomes responsible for your dependents.

Estate Planning Checklist

To help ensure that you create an appropriate estate plan, be sure to:

  • Organize your financial information. List all of your accounts, the institution names and account numbers. For example, list your CalSTRS or CalPERS pension information; any relevant information about your 403(b) or 457 plan; checking and savings accounts; brokerage accounts; bonds; insurance policies, etc.  Include your Social Security number. CAUTION: This is sensitive information that should not be left around on desktops or in unprotected computer files.
  • Create a list of all your assets and liabilities. Date it. Update it on a periodic basis.
  • Name an executor (also called a personal representative) for your estate. This is the person who will administer your estate. Ask this person's permission first. This person's duties involve protecting your property until all debts and taxes have been paid, and transferring what’s left to those who are entitled to it, according to your wishes. The executor may have to handle real estate, investing, accounting and legal issues.
  • Choose a guardian if you have minor children or other dependents. Be sure you discuss this possibility with the person you have chosen. You might also name a different person as guardian of the dependent's estate.
  • Complete a durable power of attorney, which allows another person to make financial and personal decisions for you if you are incapacitated and unable to communicate your wishes.
  • Complete advance health care directives, which allow you to direct your medical care if you become incapacitated and unable to communicate your wishes.
  • Review how your assets are titled. For example, your CalPERS or CalSTRS pension and your 403(b) or 457 plan assets will pass to your designated beneficiary or beneficiaries, regardless of what you put in your will. Be sure that your beneficiary designations on retirement plans, insurance policies and annuities are consistent with your estate planning goals.
  • Create a will, spelling out how you want your property distributed as specifically as possible. Consider including a separate list of personal property that may not have significant financial value, but has sentimental value to your heirs. Designate to whom each item goes.
  • Provide final instructions. Let your family and friends know whether you prefer burial or cremation, what religious or other ceremonies you may prefer, preferences for memorials, etc. Put it in writing.
  • Consider trusts if you have significant assets, have concerns about leaving large amounts of money to your children or other dependents without conditions, or if you have a special-needs child.
  • Remember charities and pets. If you have a favored charitable cause, consider making provisions in your estate plan. Don't forget to make arrangements for the physical and financial care of your pets.

There are many books and Internet sites that have more information about wills and estate planning.

Who Should Visit a Professional?

When planning for the financial futures of your loved ones, it’s best not to take any chances. Seeking the expertise of an attorney and estate planner is recommended for everyone, but especially for anyone with a complex estate or a large degree of wealth. A professional can draft your will according to your specific objectives, explain estate-tax laws and exemptions, designate your beneficiaries and offer advice – all in your best interest. You’ll have peace of mind knowing that your estate plan follows legal guidelines and that your wishes will be carried out according to plan.

You can search for attorneys at the State Bar of California at*

You can search for estate planners at the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils at *

When choosing an attorney and/or estate planner, be sure to conduct your due diligence on his or her background and qualifications.

*Web site provided for information only. No endorsement is implied.