Getting Ready for Estate Planning Lesson

July 08, 2010 Print Friendly and PDF
Getting Ready for Estate Planning

Estate planning is making the most of what you have, both now and after your death. Estate planning allows you to arrange your affairs according to your wishes. You coordinate the use and distribution of your property. And, you can provide for charitable gifts and bequests.


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Estate planning is making the most of what you have, both now and after your death. Estate planning allows you to arrange your affairs according to your wishes. You coordinate the use and distribution of your property. And, you can provide for charitable gifts and bequests.

The purpose of this learning lesson is to help you organize your thoughts and information before you see an advisor about an estate plan. Many people avoid estate planning because they think that the process will be overwhelming. We believe that the six steps provided here will help you get ready. These steps are frequently recommended by experts. They are:

  1. Initiate the discussion
  2. Take stock of the present
  3. Develop objectives
  4. Choose advisors
  5. Consider alternatives
  6. Review and modify

You can use the steps in any order, but they will probably make the most sense if you start with step 1 and proceed to step 6. You can download the following file to keep track of your progress. Download this worksheet page, Estate planning tracking worksheet PDF version, Estate planning tracking worksheet RTF version.

To download all the worksheets for this learning lesson click either version Workbook RTF version or Workbook PDF version.

House and estate grounds

Step 1. Initiate the discussion

For many people, one of the biggest challenges in getting started in estate planning is beginning a discussion. Too often, family members are hesitant to discuss estate planning. In some cases it is older family members who delay because of unpleasant thoughts of growing older and dying. In other cases, it's younger family members who hesitate because they don't want to place additional stress on older family members. How can you initiate a discussion without causing misunderstandings?

One way to initiate a discussion is to share what you've learned from this web site or others about estate planning. Encourage other family members to read the materials too. There are many books, magazine articles, and other publications that address estate planning. These could serve as a conversation starter.

There isn't one "right" way to start the discussion. Sometimes using someone else's story can help you get started. The death of a neighbor, distant relative, or friend may give you a place to start. You could say, "Do you remember what happened to so and so and what his family went through? I don't want us to go through all of that."

Talking about your wishes can help you clarify what you want to happen. Others may ask you questions or tell you things that will help you explore what you want. The more clearly you communicate your wishes, the easier it will be for everyone to understand what you want.

Be sure to discuss plans you make with your loved ones. Discussing your plan with your heirs can relieve stress heirs may feel. Remember that keeping your estate plan a secret can lead to family conflict. Explaining your decisions to family members can reduce the potential for conflict and misunderstandings.

Download the worksheet for initiating a discussion on estate planning. PDF Version, RTF Version

For additional tips on starting the conversation, go to Yellow pie plate

Conversations about estate planning are important and sometimes challenging. This publication has helpful suggestions for any age group: Conversations about estate planning

For more information about how to communicate when there are sensitive issues relating to property transfer visit, How to communicate about sensitive issues

golden egg in a nest

Step 2. Take Stock of the Present

This step is critical because it is the foundation of your entire estate plan. You can save time and money if you have the following information ready before your first visit to an attorney. The following checklist is a summary of information that your attorney will need.

Download the Take Stock of the Present worksheet at RTF Version, PDF Version

Checklist : (Directions: Each of the following headings has two different types of work pages that you can print out to record your information or that you can save with your information).
_____ 1. Family members' names and relationship to you.
Download Family RFT version, Family PDF version
_____ 2. Location of important papers
Download Important Papers RFT version, Important Papers PDF version
_____ 3. Bank accounts and insurance
Download Accts & Ins RFT version, Accts & Ins PDF version
A. Bank accounts and safety deposit box.
B. Life insurance.
_____ 4. Assets - Download Assets RFT version, Assets PDF version
A. Trusts
B. Real estate
C. Stocks and bonds
D. Mutual funds - (not held in retirement account)
E. Retirement benefits
F. Personal property
G. Notes, mortgages, and accounts receivable
_____ 5. Liabilities
Download Liabilities RFT version, Liabilities PDF version
A. Mortgages and other real estate debts.
B. Liens against personal property (i.e. vehicle or machinery loans).
C. Other personal liabilities.
_____ 6. Miscellaneous
Download Misc RFT version, Misc PDF version
A. Other financial information.
B. Gifts given.

Two adults organizing information

Related links for additional information:

Read about Estate Planning and Property Ownership in this guide from Montana State University.

This article from the Making a Will in Pueblo , Colorado provides general information about estate planning.

Step 3. Develop Objectives

One of the most important steps in doing an estate plan is to determine your objectives.

What do you want to accomplish? Your objectives may be very different from those of your neighbors or even from other family members. You and your spouse should do this sheet separately. It's important to remember that your objectives may change as you experience changes in your life. Check all those that are important to you. Download the Objectives worksheet RTF Version, PDF Version.

_____ 1. Provide security for surviving spouse.
_____ 2. Relieve surviving spouse of estate management responsibilities.
_____ 3. Provide security for both spouses after retirement.
_____ 4. Retire at age ____.
_____ 5. Provide security for an incapacitated family member.
_____ 6. Assure continuity of farm, ranch, or other business.
_____ 7. Provide educational opportunities for beneficiaries.
_____ 8. Assist beneficiaries, including in-laws, to get started in business.
_____ 9. Minimize federal and state estate or inheritance taxes.
_____ 10. Name guardians, conservators, or trustees of minor children.
_____ 11. Name a personal representative for the estate.
_____ 12. Provide a means for paying expenses of estate settlement, taxes, and other debts.
_____ 13. Provide equitable (not necessarily equal) treatment of family members.
_____ 14. Transfer specific property to specific people.
_____ 15. Make gifts to family members and others during lifetime.
_____ 16. Reduce income taxes by disposing of income property during life.
_____ 17. Transfer property during life by installment sale.
_____ 18. Provide for charitable bequests to favorite charities or organizations.
_____ 19. Minimize probate and settlement costs.
_____ 20. Other, _______________________________________

There are many ways to accomplish your objectives. No one way will be right for everyone. Your objectives will guide you through each step of the estate planning process.

couple defining objectives

Step 4. Choose Professional Advisors, a Guardian, and a Personal Representative

You will need to choose several advisors. Some of the advisors will be professionals and some will be personal. Think of this step as developing a team of talented players who will help you find the way to reach your goals for your family's well-being. Your team could include: an attorney, a financial planner, a trustee, an executor or personal representative, a guardian, and others.

Make a list of your advisors. Download the Advisor, Guardian, and Personal Representatives Worksheet at RTF Version, PDF Version

Professional advisors: Attorney

  • Ask your friends, accountant, banker, and/or financial planner for suggestions.
  • After collecting at least three names, make an appointment with each attorney.
  • Ask about their background and experience.
  • Are you able to communicate clearly with each attorney?
  • Discuss fees. Does the attorney charge by the hour, a flat fee, or a percentage of the estate?
  • After your initial visits with the three attorneys, consider how comfortable you would be discussing your situation with the person.
  • Would your spouse or children be comfortable working with this person when you are gone?
  • Ask the attorney how long it would take him or her to complete the process.

For information on referral services from the American Bar Association, and click on the Find Legal Help link in the left menu.

Another resource for referrals is the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. At ACTEC Fellows are selected on the basis of professional reputation and ability in the fields of trusts and estates and for having made substantial contributions through lecturing, writing, teaching, and bar activities.

Professional Advisor

Financial Planner

A financial planner will help you to clarify your objectives and suggest alternatives that should be discussed with your estate planning attorney. The financial planning process consists of six steps:

1. Establishing and defining the client-planner relationship
2. Gathering client data, including goals
3. Analyzing and evaluating financial status
4. Developing and presenting recommendations and/or alternatives
5. Implementing the financial planning recommendations
6. Monitoring the recommendations

A resource for selecting a financial planner is the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. At that site, select Search for a Certified Planner to find a planner in your state. Another resource is the Financial Planning Association. At this site you can find a CFP™ Professional by selecting Public/Find a Planner.

Financial planner meeting with couple

Personal advisors: Executor or Personal Representative

  • An executor makes sure that your wishes are carried out and manages your property until the estate is passed on to your heirs.
  • You need to have confidence in the person and know that he or she can be trusted to carry out your wishes.
  • According to Steve Weisman, an elder law attorney, two other important qualities for an executor are knowledge of your family and common sense.
  • A personal representative is entitled to receive a fee for services. Personal representatives often waive their fee for a family member or good friend. Discuss in advance whether your personal representative will expect to be paid.

This is Metropolitan Life publication is about making a will. It has a good explanation of what executors do.

Personal estate planning advisor


  • A guardianship specifies who will have physical custody of your children.
  • The first choice for a guardian could be the surviving parent unless death, divorce, or other situations make that choice impossible or undesirable.
  • The second choice is a loving member of your immediate family or a loving friend.
  • You may want to name a Conservator to handle the decisions about money for the children in addition to the person (Guardian) who has physical custody of the children.

Deciding on a guardian for children is often a challenge for parents. Ric Edelman, a financial planner, has developed a list of questions to help parents choose a guardian.

For more information about providing for children, see Estate Planning for Families with Minor and/or Special Needs Children.

Parental guardian and chlid


  • A trustee is responsible for the prudent management of a trust's assets in a way to generate income for the beneficiaries and to continue to grow capital.
  • He or she must follow state and federal regulations that apply to the trust.
  • Desirable qualities for a trustee are investment expertise, integrity, judgment, and the ability to get along with family members.

Durable power of attorney

  • This is a person you name to be your representative to perform certain actions if you become unable to manage your affairs. For example, the power of attorney could pay bills, sell securities, or make major financial decisions on your behalf.
  • Choose someone you trust completely as your power of attorney.

Health care power of attorney

  • This is a person you appoint as a representative to act on your behalf in matters affecting health care, including consenting to health care procedures in the event of your incompetency or incapacity.
  • This representative's powers do not become effective until you become incapable of consenting to health care.
  • This representative needs to know and understand your wishes.

Trustee of estate

Step 5. Consider Alternatives

There might be several ways to accomplish your objectives. Explanations of some of the alternatives are given below.

  • Ask your professional advisors to explain the alternatives that would work for you.
  • Think about the consequences of each one.
  • You will probably want to talk them over with your spouse, family members, or other advisors before making your decisions.

Some issues that you might want to discuss with your advisor include the following:

  • How your estate plan affects the estate of your surviving spouse and the amount of estate taxes that he or she will owe upon death.
  • How your estate plan will be affected if a named beneficiary dies before you do.

You need to check the laws of the state in which you live. Each state makes it own laws in regard to estate planning.

Property ownership

How your property is titled is important because it affects how a person's property is distributed at death.

This resource will help you make decisions about distributing your personal property.

For information on the main forms of property ownership and examples of estate settlement for each, see Estate Planning: Property Ownership.

For more information about how to communicate when there are sensitive issues relating to property transfer visit Farm Transfer.

House in a person's hands

Preparing a will

A will is a legal declaration of how a person wants to have his or her property distributed at death.

Another resource to help you understand wills is Estate Planning: Wills.

Using a trust

A trust is a legal arrangement where a person (grantor) transfers legal ownership of property to a trustee to hold and manage for the benefit of named beneficiaries.

We suggest that you discuss trusts with your attorney.

Your gross estate

Another net worth calculator is available at Smart Money. Read the article Will You Owe Estate Taxes? And use the Net Worth Calculator and The Estate Tax Exposure Meter under the link, Will You Owe Estate Taxes.

Estate Planning Defined shows an example of How to Estimate a Gross Estate, Probate Estate, and Taxable Estate. (You will need to scroll down the page to this section.)



This resource from the National Financial Planning Support Center talks about insurance serving several purposes in estate planning.

For information to help you understand when insurance fits into your estate plan, see Life Insurance: An Estate Planning Tool.

Person signing insurance papers

A living will

This is a declaration that you prefer to die a natural death instead of using extraordinary medical treatment to keep you alive.

This site has forms for living wills that are designed for particular states.

Durable power of attorney

This site has forms for a durable power of attorney that are designed for particular states.

More information, Durable Power of Attorney Montana State University

Health care power of attorney

This site has forms for health care power of attorney that are designed for particular states.

Before you meet with an advisor, you might want to develop a list of questions to ask about the alternatives that seem to fit your estate planning needs.

Make a list of your alternatives. (Directions: Download the file below that you can use to print and record your information or that you can save as your information.) Download the Alternatives worksheet at RTF Version, PDF Version.

Power of attorney

Step 6. Review and Modify

We live in a world of continuous change. Even if you've begun working on an estate plan, you need to remember that things change. The value of your property may change. Your objectives may change. Your beneficiaries may marry, divorce, have children, or die. Tax laws may change. So it's important to plan to review and modify.

First, be sure that you have completed all of the items that you planned to do. Use the checklist to be sure that you didn't forget anything.

Financial Checkup Checklist:
_____ Obtain permission of people I would like to name to represent me in these (estate planning) documents.
_____ Have my will and/or trust drafted or updated.
_____ Carefully read each legal document.
_____ Make a list describing whom I want to receive each of my personal belongings and put it with my will.
_____ Explain to family members that I have a will and tell them its location as well as the location of other important documents.
_____ Give a copy of my will to my executor or personal representative.
_____ Give a copy of my trust to my trustee.
_____ Give a copy of my living will to my attorney, doctor, hospital, and family.
_____ Have a current durable power of attorney for health care and family.
_____ Give a copy of my durable power of attorney for health care to my attorney, doctor, hospital, and family.
_____ Have a current durable power of attorney for financial affairs.
_____ Give a copy of my durable power of attorney for financial affairs to my attorney and all appropriate financial institutions.
_____ Write a letter of farewell to your spouse, children, and other close family members or friends.

  • Financial Checkup Checklist from Jerry Mason's book, Financial Fitness for Life, (1999) published by Dearborn Publishing Company, page 295.

Second, advisors suggest a review of an estate plan every one to three years, or whenever there is a major change such as a birth, death, marriage, divorce, or tax law change. We suggest that you keep a record beginning with the date that your estate plan was established and listing the date when it was reviewed. For example:

Date estate plan was established: _________________

Date of 1st review or change: ____________________

Date of 2nd review or change: ____________________

Date of 3rd review or change: ____________________

Another suggestion is to continue to add information to this plan. You could include information about changes relating to your home, personal property, family, business, etc.

Make a list of the actions you need to do. (Directions: Download the worksheet for Step 6 that you can use to print and record your information and save your information.)Download the Final chceklist worksheet at RTF Version, PDF Version.

Additional resources:
Here is a list of estate planning mistakes.
Ten frequently asked questions about estate planning.

review estate planning

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Contacts and Credits

It is our hope that you use the Getting Ready for Estate Planning workbook and web site to help you organize your thoughts and information before you see an advisor about an estate plan. Many people avoid estate planning because they think the process will be overwhelming. If you have any questions or comments about this workbook and web site, please feel free to contact either of us. Our names and information are listed below.

Janet C. Bechman, Extension
Plan of Work & Accountability Coordinator
Agad Bldg, Rm 102A
615 W. State Street
West Lafayette, IN 47907-2053
Phone: (765) 494-8309
Fax: (765) 494-5876

Sharon DeVaney, Professor Emeritus
Consumer Sciences & Retailing
Matthews Hall 216
812 W. State Street
West Lafayette, IN 47907-2060

This web site was based, in part, on material from "Getting Started in Estate Planning," HE-517, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, prepared by Dixie Porter Jackson, Extension Specialist, Consumer Economics, and Mary Jane Johnson, Extension Associate, Family Economics, Revised 3/92.

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