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Preparing for Your Initial Estate Planning Appointment

Estate planning is something that most people need, but do not want to think about. However, if done properly, a comprehensive estate plan can not only save your estate from having to pay substantial fees and possibly taxes upon your passing (and reducing the amount ultimately passed on to your beneficiaries), but can provide you and your family and loved ones peace of mind the event of your incapacity or death.

Once you have made the decision to proceed forward with preparing your estate plan, the following is a short list of things to think about and bring with you to your initial estate planning appointment:

1. What is the main focus of having your estate plan prepared?

At Cooper-Gordon LLP, a comprehensive estate plan consists of a Will, Trust, Advance Health Care Directive and General Durable Power of Attorney for Financial Matters. Although the purpose of each of these documents may be generally clear, it is helpful for you to advise your estate planning attorney what your primary concern and purpose is in drafting your estate plan, so that he or she may better tailor your estate plan. For example, your main focus may be to minimize taxes, costs and fees which may have to be paid upon your death and/or your spouse's death, that your companion animal is well taken care of when you are gone or simply to make sure your "no good" relative does not inherit any portion of your estate. So long as you communicate these concerns to your estate planning attorney, these are all things that can be planned and arranged via a customized estate plan, tailored to suit your specific needs and purposes.

2. Who are your beneficiaries?

Although this seems pretty obvious, it is surprising how many people give little thought as to who to make beneficiaries of their trust or probate estate. Some people are clear about their first choices, but, beyond that, are clueless. For example, many couples coming in to our office for an estate plan have decided to leave their entire estate to their children. However, when asked what should happen to their estate in the unfortunate event that one or more of their children predecease them, they have no idea what they wish to do. Should the gift pass to the living children of the predeceased child? Or should the gift pass to the remaining living children? Or should the gift go to someone else entirely or to one or more charities? Should you consider giving to a charity as a primary beneficiary even if you have a relatively small estate, or are you robbing your heirs of their anticipated inheritance?

When coming in for your initial estate planning appointment, you should be prepared to discuss these questions. A proper estate plan needs to cover every possible eventuality in the event of your death or incapacity.

3. Who are your Agents, Executors and Trustees?

You should also think about whom you would like to appoint to act on your behalf in the event of your incapacity or death, bearing in mind that it may make better sense to name different individuals for each role. For example, the person you trust to make decisions for your healthcare in the event of your incapacity may not be the same person you want to manage your financial affairs, even though the health care agent will not have to make any decisions for you, but will be required only to make sure your wishes as set forth in your Advance Health Care Directive are carried out in the manner that you desire.

You should consider speaking to each of those persons you intend to name as your agents as well as your alternate agents (including your executors, trustees, conservators, health care agents and attorneys in fact) to make sure that they are willing to so serve. Each of these roles brings with it great responsibility, so you need to make sure that the people you have selected to fulfill these important roles are willing to commit to the time and responsibility and, at least for the foreseeable future, are able to do so. You should also consider whether you want those people to be paid for their time out of the estate, or whether you expect them to serve without pay. If no persons fit the bill to take on the responsibility and time, especially where financial matters are concerned, you can always appoint professional fiduciaries to take care of you and/or your estate. They are licensed and bonded and can hire the proper professionals to completely care for you in the event you need it during your lifetime, and, of course, your estate, before as well as after your passing.

4. Do you want to make specific gifts?

If you do not provide for specific gifts of property, your Executor or Trustee may either decide which specific gifts to make to each beneficiary in satisfaction of their set share of your Estate, or he or she may sell your personal property and distribute the sales proceeds to your beneficiaries. So, even though you would like your favorite niece to receive that piece of jewelry she's always been fond of, she may get the cash value of the piece instead, if you do not make a specific gift of that jewelry. Thus, it is important to think about whether there are any specific assets which you would like to gift to particular individuals as part of your estate plan, or whether you simply want each beneficiary to receive a set percentage or share of your net estate upon your passing.

5. Bring a list of your assets and a copy of any deeds.

It is always helpful to bring a list of all of your assets, including account numbers and approximate values, the most recent statement for your accounts and a copy of real property deeds, with you to your initial meeting in order to determine what type of estate plan will best suit your needs. Please do not forget to include all annuities, life insurance and retirement benefits, including IRA's, 401k's and all defined benefit and defined contribution plans.

You should also be aware of any existing joint tenancy accounts and/or pay-on-death designations you have made with regard to your assets, as these may need to be changed after discussing your options with your estate planning attorney.

Although it may seem overwhelming to think about all of these questions, these are all questions that everyone needs to address in order to make sure that we and our loved ones are looked after in the event of our incapacity or following our passing. An experienced attorney at Cooper-Gordon LLP will be happy to go through all of these issues and discuss each with you to make sure that your wishes regarding these important questions are clearly memorialized and set forth in such a way as to ensure that they are carried out in the manner you have instructed when you are not able to do so yourself.