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An Introduction to Estate Planning

Simply stated, estate planning is a method for determining how to distribute your property during your life and at your death. It is the process of developing and implementing a master plan that facilitates the distribution of your property after your death and according to your goals and objectives.

At your death, you leave behind the people that you love and all your worldly goods. Without advance planning, you have no say about who gets what, and more of your property may go to others, like the federal government, instead of your loved ones. If you care about (1) how and to whom your property is distributed, and (2) ensuring that your property is preserved for your loved ones, you need to know more about estate planning.

As a process, estate planning requires a little effort on your part. First, you'll want to come to terms with dying, at least to a degree that you can deal with the necessary planning. Understandably, your death can be a very uncomfortable subject, but unfortunately, the discussions in this area are full of references to your death, so it really can't be avoided. Some statements may seem too businesslike and unfeeling, but tiptoeing around the subject of dying will only make the planning process more difficult. You will understand the process more easily and implement a more successful master plan if you approach it in a straightforward manner.

Who needs estate planning?

Not just for the wealthy

Estate planning may be important to individuals with a wide range of financial situations. In fact, it may be more important if you have a smaller estate because the final expenses will have a much greater impact on your estate. Wasting even a single asset may cause your loved ones to suffer from a lack of financial resources.

Your master plan can consist of strategies that are simple and inexpensive to implement (e.g., a will or life insurance). If your estate is larger, the estate planning process can be more complex and expensive.

Implementing most strategies will probably require you to hire professional help of some kind, an attorney, an accountant, a trust officer, or an insurance agent, for example. If your estate is large or complex, you should consult with an estate planning expert such as a tax attorney or financial planner for advice before the implementation stage.

In deciding on your course of action, you should always consider whether the benefit of the strategy outweighs the cost of its implementation.

May be especially needed under certain circumstances

You may need to plan your estate especially if:

  • Your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and estate tax applicable exclusion amount or your state's death tax exclusion amount
  • Your income tax bracket is in excess of 10 percent
  • You have children who are minors or who have special needs
  • Your spouse is uncomfortable with or incapable of handling financial matters
  • You're a business owner
  • You have property in more than one state
  • You intend to contribute to charity
  • You have special property, such as artwork or collectibles
  • You have strong feelings about health-care decisions
  • You have privacy concerns or want to avoid probate

How to do it

Designing a plan is a process that is unique to each estate owner. Don't be intimidated or overwhelmed at the prospect. Even the most complex plan can be achieved if you proceed step by step. Remember, the peace of mind that comes with developing a successful estate plan is worth the time, trouble, and expense.

Understand your particular circumstances

Begin the estate planning process by understanding your particular circumstances, such as your age, health, wealth, etc.

Understand the factors that will affect your estate

You will also need to have some understanding of the factors that may affect the distribution of your estate, such as taxes, probate, liquidity, and incapacity.

Clarify your goals and objectives

When your particular circumstances and the factors that may affect your estate are clear, your goals and objectives should come into focus.

Understand the strategies that are available

With these goals and objectives now clear, you can begin to consider the different estate planning strategies that are available to you.

Seek professional help

Seeking professional help (an attorney or financial advisor) will help you understand the strategies that are available and formulate and implement your master plan.

Formulate and implement a plan

Finally, after following these steps, you can formulate and implement a plan that works for you. Here are a few basic tips: (1) make sure you understand your plan, (2) rely on people you trust, and (3) keep your documents and information organized and within easy reach.

Perform periodic reviews

When you have implemented your master plan, be sure to perform a periodic review and, if necessary, make revisions that reflect any changing circumstances and tax laws.

How do you begin?

There are many estate planning strategies, including some that are implemented inter vivos (during life), such as making gifts, and others post-mortem (after death), such as disclaimers. Before you choose which strategies are right for you, you need to understand your particular circumstances.

Gather and analyze the facts

Understanding your particular circumstances results from gathering and analyzing the facts. The following questions may help you to accomplish this. If they are not easy to answer, you may have to make some estimates based on reasonable assumptions and expectations.

Information regarding your financial condition

  • What is your current income?
  • What is your income likely to be in the future?
  • How much do you spend each year?
  • What are your expenses likely to be in the future?
  • What are your current assets and debts?
  • Are your assets currently owned solely or jointly?
  • What estate planning strategies have you already implemented?

Family information

  • Who are the family members you intend to benefit?
  • What are the needs of each family member?

What other factors need to be considered?

Decide what your goals and objectives are in light of your particular circumstances and in light of the factors that may affect your estate. The primary factors that may affect your estate are your beneficiaries, taxes, probate, liquidity, and incapacity.


One of the largest potential expenses your estate may have to pay is taxes, which may include federal transfer taxes, state death taxes, and federal income taxes.

Federal transfer taxes — The federal transfer taxes include (1) the federal gift tax and estate tax and (2) the federal generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax.

  • Federal gift tax — Gift tax is imposed on property you transfer to others while you are living. You need a basic understanding of how the gift tax system works to minimize gift tax liability. Under the gift tax system, in 2021 you are allowed a $11,700,000 lifetime applicable exclusion amount that reduces your gift and estate tax liability (any (basic) applicable exclusion amount you use during life effectively reduces the amount that will be available at your death). Also, you are currently allowed to give $15,000 per donee gift tax free under the annual gift tax exclusion (the annual gift tax exclusion is indexed for inflation, so this amount may change in future years). Further, certain other types of transfers can be made gift tax free. You need to understand what these types of transfer are and how they work to take full advantage of them.
  • Federal estate tax — Generally speaking, estate tax is imposed on property you transfer to others at the time of your death. You need a basic understanding of how the estate tax system works for several reasons:
    • Saving your property for your beneficiaries — Estate tax rates could reach as high as 40 percent in 2021, which means that a large chunk of your estate may go to the federal government instead of your beneficiaries. If you want to preserve your estate for your beneficiaries, you'll need to know how to minimize estate tax with respect to your property.  
    • Reducing estate tax liability — Under the estate tax system, you are allowed an applicable exclusion amount that reduces your estate tax liability. Also, there are exclusions, deductions, and other credits available that allow you to pass a certain amount of your estate tax free. You need to understand what these exclusions, deductions, and credits are and how they work to take full advantage of them.
    • Providing for the payment of estate tax — Generally, estate tax must be paid within nine months after your death. To avoid depriving your beneficiaries of what you intend for them to receive, you should provide that specific and sufficient assets be set aside and used for this purpose. In addition, these assets should be sufficiently liquid to pay these expenses when they are due.
    • Planning for estate tax expense — Although calculating estate tax can be complex, you should estimate what the amount of your estate tax may be (if any), so that you can arrange to replace that wealth.
  • GST tax — Another federal transfer you need to understand is the federal generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax. The GST tax is imposed on property you transfer to an individual who is two or more generations below you (e.g., a grandchild or great-nephew). Not surprisingly, the IRS wants to levy a tax on property as it is passed from generation to generation at each and every level. The purpose of the GST tax is to keep individuals from avoiding estate tax by skipping an intermediate generation. A flat tax rate equal to the highest estate tax then in effect is imposed on every generation-skipping transfer you make over a certain amount. You are allowed a GST tax exemption of $11,700,000 in 2021. Currently, some states also impose their own GST tax. Check with an attorney or your state to find out what may be subject to your state's GST tax, and how and when to file a state GST tax return.

State death taxes — States also impose their own death taxes. You should be aware of what the death tax laws are in your state and how they may affect your estate. There are three types of state death taxes: (1) estate tax, (2) inheritance tax, and (3) credit estate tax (also called a sponge tax or pickup tax). Some states also impose their own gift tax and/or generation skipping transfer tax.

  • Estate tax — State estate tax is imposed on property you transfer to others at your death, much like federal estate tax. The state estate tax calculation for most states is similar to the federal calculation.
  • Inheritance tax — Unlike estate tax, the inheritance tax is imposed on your beneficiary's right to receive your property. Tax is due on each beneficiary's share of your estate. Beneficiaries are grouped into classes (generally based upon their familial relationship to you) and are taxed accordingly. Although inheritance tax is due on each heir's share of your estate, it's your personal representative who writes the check from your estate to pay it.
  • Credit estate tax — Some states impose a credit estate tax (also referred to as a sponge tax or pickup tax).

Tip: Most states that imposed a credit estate tax have "decoupled" from the federal system (i.e., they're imposing some form of stand-alone estate tax.)

Tip: The federal system allows a deduction for state death taxes for the estates of persons dying in 2005 and later. Prior to 2005, a credit was available.

Zack is the author of this solution article.

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