Published Friday, March 13, 2015 at: 7:00 AM EDT
Some people avoid estate planning at all costs. But putting aside the inevitable emotions involved in looking ahead to your own demise, it's crucial to understand the process. A good place to start is by debunking these six common but potentially damaging myths:
Myth #1: My estate is too small to need an estate plan.
Reality: You don't need a small fortune for your heirs to benefit from estate planning. For instance, what if you decide to divide your assets among several beneficiaries, instead of designating just your spouse or another person? That could be very important if you're in a second or third marriage and have children from a previous marriage. In addition, you might want to leave some of your estate to charity. Wanting to help your family avoid the delays of probate, seeking to reduce estate taxes, and choosing who will administer your estate also call for estate planning.
Myth #2: I don't need an estate plan because my spouse will inherit everything.
Reality: This is closely related to the first myth. Just because you have left everything to your spouse under your will -- and your spouse has returned the favor -- doesn't mean you won't benefit from estate planning. What happens if your spouse dies first at a relatively early age, or if you die together in an accident? What then? There might be complications because of how assets are titled, who are named as beneficiaries of your life insurance policies and your retirement plans, or the estate laws of your state.
Myth #3: If you're wealthy, there's no way to avoid estate taxes.
Reality: That's simply not true. On the federal level, your estate can benefit from a generous $5.49 million exemption for those dying in 2017 (and that amount is indexed for inflation and will rise in future years). What's more, because you or your spouse can use the other's leftover exemption, the effective amount the two of you can shield from estate taxes is close to $11 million. Trusts and other tax-saving vehicles can further reduce estate tax exposure. Although state inheritance tax rules aren't always as generous, professional guidance may help there, too.
Myth #4: Everything is covered in my will so estate planning isn't necessary.
Reality: While a will is a good starting place for an estate plan, it's not likely to be enough on its own. There may be numerous other loose ends to tie up. In addition, depending on your state's laws, your heirs may have to go through a lengthy probate process that can be even more drawn out if you owned property in several states. A revocable living trust can help you pass some assets to your heirs without probate, and your will probably also should be accompanied by a durable power of attorney authorizing a family member or a professional to act on your behalf if you're incapacitated.
Myth #5: I don't have to worry about life insurance and retirement plan designations.
Reality: This is overstating the case. Although the beneficiary designations you've made for life insurance and retirement plans, as well as for your IRAs, are a good start, you still need to coordinate those choices with other aspects of your estate plan. You might want to revise your designations, for example if you get divorced or a spouse dies, or you could need to add secondary or contingent beneficiaries. Also, proceeds from life insurance are included in the taxable estate of the insured, although the proceeds generally will be excluded if you transfer ownership of the policy to someone else or a trust.
Myth #6: Once my estate plan is complete, I don't have to do anything else.
Reality: Nothing could be further from the truth. Your family and financial circumstances almost certainly will continue to evolve, and your estate plan needs to reflect significant changes. Marriage, divorce, or the birth of children or grandchildren all could have an impact. And the best-laid plans could be affected by a disability or unexpected death of a spouse. Finally, your plan may have to be fine-tuned to take other events into account, especially if the estate tax laws are revised again. So be sure to review your plan periodically and revise it when necessary.
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