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Estate planning is the process of anticipating and arranging for the disposal of an estate during a person's life. Estate planning typically attempts to eliminate uncertainties over the administration of a probate and maximize the value of the estate by reducing taxes and other expenses. However, the ultimate goal of estate plan is determined by the specific goals of the client and may be as simple or complex as the client's needs dictate. Guardians are often designated for minor children and beneficiaries in incapacity.
Estate planning involves the will, trusts, beneficiary designations, powers of appointment, property ownership (joint tenancy with rights of survivorship, tenancy in common, tenancy by the entirety), gift, and powers of attorney, specifically the durable financial power of attorney and the durable medical power of attorney. After widespread litigation and media coverage surrounding the Terri Schiavo case, estate planning attorneys now often advise clients to also create a living will. Specific final arrangements, such as whether to be buried or cremated, are also often part of the documents. More sophisticated estate plans may even cover deferring or decreasing estate taxes or winding up a business.
Trusts may be used to set up certain provisions for how minor children or developmentally disabled children will be distributed funds. For example, a spendthrift trust may be used to prevent wasteful spending by a spendthrift child, or a special needs trust may be used for developmentally disabled children.
Because the United States tax code does not tax life insurance proceeds as income, a life insurance trust could be used to pay estate taxes. However, if the decedent holds any incidents of ownership like the ability to remove or change beneficiary, the proceeds will remain in his estate. For this reason, the trust vehicle is used to own the life insurance policy and it must be irrevocable to avoid inclusion in the estate.
Mediation serves as an alternative to a full-scale litigation to settle disputes. At a mediation, family members and beneficiaries discuss plans on transfer of assets. Because of the potential conflicts associated with blended families, step siblings, and multiple marriages, creating an estate plan through mediation allows people to confront the issues head-on and design a plan that will minimize the chance of future family conflict and meet their financial goals.
Estate planning is usually a legal and tax specialty for an attorney or an accountant. Credentials for certification of estate planners include Trust and Estate Practitioner, Chartered Financial Analyst, Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Trust and Estate Planner.
In the United States, without a beneficiary statement, the default provision in the custodian-agreement will apply, which may be the estate of the owner resulting in higher taxes and extra fees.