What Is Estate Planning? Definition, Meaning, and Key Components (2024)

1. Make a list of all your assets.Be sure to include any physical assets like real estate and sentimental items along with any bank accounts, insurance policies, and annuities.
2. Make a list of all your debts.This list should include everything you owe, including any loans.
3. Make copies of your lists.If you have multiple beneficiaries, it helps to make multiple copies for each one to have at their disposal.
4. Review your retirement accounts.This is important, especially for accounts that have beneficiaries attached to them. Remember, any accounts with a beneficiary pass directly to them.
5. Review your insurance and annuities.Make sure your beneficiary information is up-to-date and all of your other information is accurate.
6. Set up joint accounts or transfer of death designations.Joint accounts, like checking and savings accounts, don't have to go through the probate process as long as there is a right of survivorship. This means the account moves directly from the deceased to the surviving owner. A transfer of death designation allows you to name an individual who can take over the account after you die without probate.
7. Choose your estate administrator.This individual is responsible for taking care of your financial matters after you die. Your spouse may not be the right person as they may not be in the right emotional space to take over your finances.
8. Write your will.Wills don't just unravel any financial uncertainty, they can also lay out plans for your minor children and pets, and you can also instruct your estate to make charitable donations with the funds you leave behind.
9. Review your documents.Make sure you look over everything every couple of years and make changes whenever you see fit.
10. Send a copy of your will to your administrator.This ensures there is no second-guessing that a will exists or that it gets lost. Send one to the person who will assume responsibility for your affairs after you die and keep another copy somewhere safe.
11. See a financial professional.This may be an estate planner or a financial planner. This person can help you review your accounts and help you make decisions to optimize your earnings.
12. Consider consolidating your accounts.It may be a good idea to move as much as you can into one account. Doing so helps clear up any confusion in the future for you and for your heirs.
13. Complete other financial documents.You may need other legal and financial documents as you get older. Consider a power of attorney (POA) for health and finances, living wills, and letters of instruction that provide direction for your funeral or what to do with other assets like a digital wallet.
14. Consider other savings vehicles.There are tax-advantaged investment vehicles you can take advantage of to help you and others, such as 529 college savings plans for your grandchildren.

Writing a Will

A will is a legal document that provides instructions about how an individual’s property and custody of minor children (if any) should be handled after death. The individual expresses their wishes and names a trustee or executor that they trust to fulfill their stated intentions.

The will also indicates whether a trust should be created after death. Depending on the estate owner’s intentions, a trust can go into effect during their lifetime through a living trust or with a testamentary trust after their death.

The authenticity of a will is determined through a legal process known as probate. Probate is the first step taken in administering the estate of a deceased person and distributing assets to the beneficiaries. When an individual dies, the custodian of the will must take the will to the probate court or to the executor named in the will, typically within 10 to 30 days of the death of the individual (who is also called a testator).

The probate process is a court-supervised procedure in which the authenticity of the will left behind is proved to be valid and accepted as the true last testament of the deceased. The court officially appoints the executor named in the will, which, in turn, gives the executor the legal power to act on behalf of the deceased.

Estate Planning vs. Will

Estate planning is an action plan you can use to determine what happens to your assets and obligations while you're alive and after you die.

A will, on the other hand, is a legal document that outlines how assets are distributed, who takes care of children and pets, and any other wishes after you die.

Appointing the Right Executor

The legal personal representative or executor approved by the court is responsible for resolving the financial affairs of the deceased, including locating and overseeing all assets. The executor has to estimate the value of the estate by using either the date of death value or the alternative valuation date, as provided in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC).

Assets that need to be assessed during probate include:

  • Retirement accounts
  • Bank accounts
  • Stocks and bonds
  • Real estate
  • Jewelry
  • Any other items of value

Most assets that are subject to probate administration come under the supervision of the probate court in the place where the decedent lived at death. The exception is real estate, which may need to be probated in the county in which it is located.

The executor also has to pay off any taxes and debt owed by the deceased from the estate. Creditors usually have a limited amount of time from the date they were notified of the testator’s death to make claims against the estate for money owed to them. Claims that are rejected by the executor can be taken to court where a probate judge will have the final say as to whether or not the claim is valid.

The executor is also responsible for filing the final personal income tax returns on behalf of the deceased. After the inventory of the estate has been taken, the value of assets calculated, and taxes and debt paid off, the executor will then seek authorization from the court to distribute whatever is left of the estate to the beneficiaries.

Any estate taxes that are pending will come due within nine months of the date of death.

Planning for Estate Taxes

Federal and state taxes applied to an estate can reduce its value considerably before assets are distributed to beneficiaries. Death can result in large liabilities for the family, necessitating generational transfer strategies that can reduce, eliminate, or postpone tax payments. There are significant steps in the estate planning process that individuals and married couples can take to reduce the impact of these taxes.

A-B Trusts

Married couples, for example, can set up an A-B trust that divides into two after the death of the first spouse. Trust A is the survivor's trust while trust B becomes the decedent's trust, typically for the beneficiaries, such as the couple's children. Each individual places their assets in the trust and names someone other than their spouse as the beneficiary. However, A-B trusts have become less popular as the estate tax exemption works well for most estates.

Education Funding Strategies

Grandparents may transfer assets to an entity, such as a 529 plan, to support grandchildrens' education.

That may be a more tax-efficient move than having those assets transferred after death to fund college or other schooling when the beneficiaries are of age. The latter may trigger multiple tax events that can limit the amount of funding available to grandchildren.

Cutting the Tax Effects of Charitable Contributions

Another strategy an estate planner can take to minimize the estate’s tax liability after death is giving to charitable organizations while alive. The gifts reduce the financial size of the estate since they are excluded from the taxable estate, thus lowering the estate tax bill.

As a result, the individual has a lower effective cost of giving, which provides additional incentive to make those gifts. Estate planners can work with the donor in order to reduce taxable income as a result of those contributions or formulate strategies that maximize the effect of those donations.

Estate Freezing

This is another strategy that can be used to limit death taxes. It involves an individual locking in the current value, and thus tax liability, of their property, while attributing the value of future growth of that capital to another person. Any increase that occurs in the value of the assets in the future is transferred to the benefit of another person, such as a spouse, child, or grandchild.

This method involves freezing the value of an asset at its value on the date of transfer. Accordingly, the amount of potential capital gain at death is also frozen, allowing the estate planner to estimate their potential tax liability upon death and better plan for the payment of income taxes.

Using Life Insurance in Estate Planning

Life insurance serves as a source to pay death taxes and expenses, fund business buy-sell agreements, and fund retirement plans. If sufficient insurance proceeds are available and the policies are properly structured, any income tax on the deemed dispositions of assets following the death of an individual can be paid without resorting to the sale of assets. Proceeds from life insurance that are received by the beneficiaries upon the death of the insured are generally income tax-free.

What Is Estate Planning?

Estate planning is a broad term that is used to describe the process that individuals go through to plan the administration of their assets and liabilities before and after they die. This process also includes writing a will, reviewing accounts and assets, creating joint accounts, preparing other legal documents, and appointing an executor, among other things.

How Expensive Is Estate Planning?

Estate planning costs vary based on the steps you take and how you undergo the process. For instance, using an estate planner or lawyer may require you to pay an hourly fee for their services. Keep in mind that you may be able to secure a flat fee for services rendered. Other fees associated with estate planning include the preparation of a will, which can be as low as a few hundred dollars if you use one of the best online will makers.

What Documents Do I Need as Part of My Estate Planning?

There are certain documents you'll need as part of the estate planning process. Some of the most common ones include wills, powers of attorney (POAs), guardianship designations, and living wills. Other paperwork you'll need and will find useful include bank account statements, full lists of your holdings (assets and liabilities), and beneficiary designations.

Is Estate Planning Only for the Wealthy?

There is a myth that estate planning is only for high-net-worth individuals. But that's not true. In fact, estate planning is a tool that everyone can use. Estate planning makes it easier for individuals to determine their wishes before and after they die. Contrary to what most people believe, it extends beyond what to do with assets and liabilities. In fact, estate planning can also answer questions about the guardianship of minor children and pets, what to do when it comes time for your funeral, and what charities you want to support after you die.

The Bottom Line

You should start planning for your estate as soon as you have any measurable asset base. It's an ongoing process: as life progresses, your estate plan should shift to match your circ*mstances, in line with your new goals. And keep at it. Not doing your estate planning can cause undue financial burdens to loved ones. (Estate taxes can run as high as 40%.) So at the very least, set up a will—even if the taxable estate is not large.

Estate planning is often thought of as a tool for the wealthy. But that isn't the case. It can be a useful way for you to deal with your assets and liabilities before and after you die. Estate planning is also a great way for you to lay out plans for the care of your minor children and pets, and to outline your wishes for your funeral and favorite charities. But don't confuse writing a will with estate planning—the former is just one of the steps you'll need to take in the estate planning process. While you're at it, make sure you appoint a responsible executor and review your accounts on a regular basis to ensure you're getting the most bang for your buck.

What Is Estate Planning? Definition, Meaning, and Key Components (2024)


What Is Estate Planning? Definition, Meaning, and Key Components? ›

Estate planning covers the transfer of property at death as well as a variety of other personal matters and may or may not involve tax planning. The core document most often associated with this process is your will.

What is the best definition of estate planning? ›

Estate planning involves determining how an individual's assets will be preserved, managed, and distributed after death. It also takes into account the management of an individual's properties and financial obligations in the event that they become incapacitated.

What are the two main components of estate planning involve? ›

A good estate plan consists of many different components, including what happens to your assets and who should act on your behalf if you are unable to. At a bare minimum, there should be two main components: a last will and testament and a durable power of attorney.

What is the key to estate planning? ›

Wills, trusts, powers of attorney, living wills and life insurance can work together to help you plan your estate.

What are three elements of an estate plan? ›

A: The three main priorities of an estate plan are to ensure that your assets are distributed in the way you prefer, that someone else has the authority to make decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so, and that your beneficiaries are clearly defined.

What is the summary of estate planning? ›

This type of planning helps determine who can make decisions on your behalf, who takes care of your dependents, and how to avoid unnecessary taxes and waiting periods. Estate planning covers any decisions regarding money, property, medical care, dependent care, and other matters that can arise when a person dies.

What is the objective of estate planning? ›

The goals of estate planning traditionally have been to provide for the orderly transfer of wealth to younger family members in accordance with the wishes of older family members; to avoid unnecessary transfer taxes, including gift taxes, estate taxes, and generation- skipping transfer taxes; to reduce income taxes; ...

What are the important factors to consider in estate planning? ›

Important Elements of Estate Planning
  • Appointing a Trusted Personal Representative. Selecting a personal representative, also known as an executor, is a crucial step in estate planning. ...
  • Protecting Your Assets with Trusts. ...
  • Planning for Incapacity. ...
  • Regularly Reviewing and Updating Your Plan.
Feb 5, 2024

What are the two key documents used to prepare an estate plan? ›

These documents include a financial power of attorney, an advance care directive, and a living trust or a last will. Here's what each of these documents accomplishes.

How many steps are involved in the estate planning process? ›

Seven steps to basic estate planning.

What are the four must-have documents? ›

The 4 legal documents every adult should have
  • A will. Also known as: a last will and testament. ...
  • A living will. Also known as: an advance directive. ...
  • Durable health care power of attorney. It appoints: a health care proxy. ...
  • Durable financial power of attorney. It appoints: an attorney-in-fact or agent.
Sep 14, 2022

What is the most important decision in estate planning? ›

Here are the most critical elements of an estate plan: Designated beneficiaries. Durable power of attorney. Health care directive.

What is the difference between will and estate planning? ›

While a will is a single tool, an estate plan involves multiple tools. Some common inclusions are wills, powers of attorney, advance directives, trusts and more. Estate plans can involve both durable power of attorney for your finances and healthcare power of attorney for medical decisions if you're incapacitated.

Which of the following is the best definition of estate planning? ›

The most common Estate Planning definition is — "the process of making plans for the management and transfer of your estate after your death, using a Will, Trust, insurance policies and/or other devices." Estate Planning has been around for many years, but it's becoming increasingly more and more common.

What does it mean to plan your estate? ›

Estate planning covers the transfer of property at death as well as a variety of other personal matters and may or may not involve tax planning. The core document most often associated with this process is your will.

Can you spend money from an irrevocable trust? ›

With an irrevocable trust, the transfer of assets is permanent. So once the trust is created and assets are transferred, they generally can't be taken out again. You can still act as the trustee but you'd be limited to withdrawing money only on an as-needed basis to cover necessary expenses.

What is the best definition of estate planning quizlet? ›

The best definition of estate planning is. A definite plan for managing property during one's lifetime and at one's death.

Which of the following is the best and most complete definition of estate planning? ›

Estate planning essentially involves deciding how your assets and belongings will be managed and distributed in the event of your death or incapacitation, typically through a legal document like a will or trust.

What is another word for estate planning? ›

Traditionally, the process of planning for the transfer of assets to your loved ones after your death is known as estate planning. As you approach this process, you might also hear another term: Legacy planning.

What are the 7 steps in the estate planning process? ›

Get a head-start on planning and follow these 7 easy steps:
  • Take Inventory of Your Estate. First, narrow down what belongs to you. ...
  • Set a Will in Place. ...
  • Form a Trust. ...
  • Consider Your Healthcare Options. ...
  • Opt for Life Insurance. ...
  • Store All Important Documents in One Place. ...
  • Hire an Attorney from Angermeier & Rogers.


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