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Smart Women, Smart Planning

5 Things Every Woman (and Man) Should Know About Estate Planning

Landscapes Winter 2002

Estate planning is about a lot more than just writing a will. It involves deciding how you want to manage and control your assets, minimize taxes and protect assets -- both for you and your heirs. As women have become more involved in the business of farming and ranching, it's no surprise that they also are becoming more involved in estate planning. The experts say estate planning doesn't have to be daunting. Following are a few tips.

1. Begin with the end in mind. The first step is to map out your goals, says Certified Financial Planner Steve Dziuk. Are you primarily concerned with reducing estate taxes? Are you charitably inclined? How do you want to pass the farm or ranch to the next generation? "This is especially important when some children have been actively involved in operating the farm, and others have not," notes Dziuk, who advises numerous farm and ranch families through his American Express Financial Advisors office near San Antonio. "You need to decide whether you are going to be fair or equal, in distribution of farm assets."

2. Know what you own. It sounds elementary, but asset values can change quickly. Without up-to-date financial records, it is difficult to accurately estimate the value of your estate. You may be well over the $1-million per- person estate tax exemption level without realizing it. Attorney and Texas A&M Extension University economist Wayne Hayenga recommends updating your financial statement every five years. "My father told me many times that he bought the farm for $250 per acre, and it would go through his estate at that value. But when he died, the farm was worth more than twice that amount, and estate taxes were five times higher than anticipated," says Hayenga.

3. Get organized. Your heirs know you own land, but what about stocks, bonds, bank accounts, life insurance policies? Make a list of assets and their location, and keep it updated. Review account signature cards. "The tendency is to not share much financial information with family members; that makes it difficult when a death occurs," says Hayenga. If you are not comfortable providing these details to a family member, give your attorney or accountant a copy.

In addition, review accounts and life insurance policies for beneficiary designations. "We create these accounts and then don't think about them. Over time, beneficiaries pass away, get married, divorced; situations change," says Dziuk. Also be sure your beneficiary designations sync with the estate plan documents.

4. Assemble a competent team. Create a trusted team of advisers who know estate law, financial planning strategies and your situation. "Look for a board-certified estate planning attorney to prepare your documents, an accountant who knows your business, and a financial planner who can bring the 'big picture' perspective," says Dziuk. Completing the documents should take no more than two months.

5. Choose your players thoughtfully. Because of the responsibility and time commitment required, choose executors and guardians with care. Select back-ups for each role. "You may even want to name a corporate executor as a third back-up so that regardless of the situation, someone is there to act on your behalf," says Dziuk. When choosing the executor, consider their time availability and capabilities. "They must be able to separate out the emotional loss of a loved one from the duties of collecting and dividing the assets," says Hayenga.

Estate planning costs vary, depending on the size of the estate and complexity of the plan. According to a recent State Bar of Texas survey, attorneys typically charge around $1,500 for a tax-planned will. But experts agree: A few dollars spent now can save your heirs thousands in estate taxes later.

-Sue Durio

In choosing an executor, ask these questions:

  • Can they be fair, without favoritism?
  • Can they communicate with professional advisers?
  • Can they work well in a stressful situation?
  • Do they have the time available?

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