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Getting started with estate planning

The first steps on planning for your family’s financial future are sometimes the most difficult and may be put off until it is too late. With some guidance and undertaking basic tasks,  estate planning is not as difficult and can help assure that your property is properly and fairly allocated after you die.

Estate planning helps set forth who will receive your assets in the most timely and cost-effective way in accordance with Pennsylvania law. Selecting a responsible person to handle your responsibilities after you die or if you become incapacitated is also helpful. You can refine these plans if your personal or financial situation changes.

Inventory and protecting assets

Conducting an inventory is an important beginning. Estate planning is recommended for most anyone regardless of their wealth, but you will likely be surprised with the amount of property you have. These tangible assets include your house and other real estate, vehicles such as cars and motorcycles, heirlooms and collectibles such as art, coins or antiques.

Intangible assets are also included. These involve checking and savings accounts and certificates of deposits, life insurance policies, health savings accounts, business ownership interests, retirement plans such as a 401(k) and individual retirement accounts and stocks, bonds and mutual funds.

Once these types of assets are inventoried, an estimate must be placed on their value. Outside valuations such as recent home appraisals and financial account statements are helpful. Otherwise, the value should be based on how heirs will value them.

Protecting these assets and your family is also included in this step. Life insurance will help assure that your family can continue to pay for expenses such as a mortgage, a child with special needs and child or college expenses.

Naming a guardian and back-up guardian for your children in your will can help prevent expensive and bitter legal fights. It is also important to set forth your wishes for the care of your children. Otherwise, your relatives or even a judge may not abide with your wishes.


In addition to your will, a comprehensive estate plan has other important directives. First, a durable power of attorney authorizes someone else to manage your business if you are incapacitated or ill. Your designated agent can act on your behalf and handle your business, financial and legal matters such as paying bills and taxes and managing or selling your assets. The agent’s power can be wide or restricted. An agent should always be a capable and trusted individual.

A medical directive or a living will contains your wishes for health care if you cannot make these decisions. A trusted person may also receive authorization to make these decisions if you are unable to.

Trusts may be appropriate. A living trust designates portions of the estate to pay for certain matters when you are alive. A selected trustee can take over if you become sick or incapacitated Upon your death, its assets may be transferred to beneficiaries without going through probate court.

Update beneficiaries

The named beneficiaries on retirement accounts and insurance policies receive their assets regardless of heirs named in a will. However, these policies are put away for safekeeping after they were first filled out and forgotten over time.

It is important to periodically review and update these beneficiaries. Or an unintended person, such as an ex-spouse or disliked relative, may receive its assets. Contingent or backup beneficiaries should be named in case any primary beneficiary dies before you. No beneficiary sections should be left blank.

Review and make changes

Marriage, loss of a loved one, births, career changes, major changes in financial circumstances and other important life events require a review of your estate plan. Also, changes in estate laws and taxes should lead to a review.

Boilerplate and online forms may not address your estate needs, lead to higher taxes and can cause avoidable expense and difficulties for your heirs after you die. An attorney can help present options addressing your situation and prepare a valid plan tailored to your situation and Pennsylvania’s legal requirements.