Estates & Wills & Trusts

The great estate – five ways to make it happen

By Suzana Popovic-Montag

As estate litigators, we’ve seen a lot of bad estates and bad estate situations. The good news is because we know the bad, we can advise clients on how to avoid it and make their estate a great one. No uncertainty, no delays, no conflicts, no nasty tax surprises.

If you want to make your estate a great one, here are five essential elements that can make it happen.

1. You’ve provided a clear path to the documentation

Ideally, your executor needs the original copy of your will – as do courts to ensure a smooth probate process. So, don’t make your will (and any other estate documents) hard to locate. Whether it’s stored at your lawyer’s office, or registered with the court, or stored in a filing cabinet at home, make sure that you and your loved ones remember where your will is and know how to access it. We discuss this issue in more detail here.

2. Your estate assets are easy to identify

Don’t assume your family and your executor know what you own. Many of us scatter our assets and accounts more than we realize. Make a list of all bank and investment accounts, insurance policies, major assets, and any virtual assets of value and keep this list with your will or ensure your named executor has a copy.

3. Your executor is trustworthy and can access the help they need

When choosing an executor, trust is essential as the person selected must be capable of acting impartially on behalf of your estate – regardless of their personal feelings about your estate and the beneficiaries.

While your executor doesn’t need to be an accountant or lawyer or investment advisor, they do need to be able to hire the expertise that your estate might require. In other words, they need to know what they don’t know and have the common sense to seek out the tax, accounting, and legal expertise that may be needed.

This article provides a great “quick list” of things to consider when choosing an executor.

4. Everyone knows what’s in your will – in advance

It is dangerous to assume that your intended beneficiaries know what is in your will and have no questions or concerns. Talking today about your intentions and your family members’ expectations lets you address any contentious issues while you’re alive – and avoid potential conflicts after you’re gone.

Even the most well-intentioned gifts – a charitable bequest, the china cabinet to a niece, the vintage hockey cards to a grandson – can lead to questions, hurt feelings and potential conflicts.

Don’t let it happen. Make sure that everyone who might be touched by your will at death knows exactly what’s in it.

5. Tax planning in place – if needed

You’re deemed to have disposed of your capital assets at their fair market value when you die. This means your estate is liable for capital gains taxes on assets that have increased in value during your lifetime. Your executors may be forced to sell estate assets to pay for the tax liability – and a forced sale may mean the assets are sold for less than their fair value.

There are many strategies available to help cover an estate’s tax liability, from the use of trusts to the purchase of life insurance. Make sure you’ve considered whether tax planning is needed for your estate, and put a strategy in place if needed.

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