Use this checklist to get started on your estate planning

Doug May
Doug May

People tend to put off estate planning, but in doing so run the risk they could die without leaving their financial affairs in good order and in turn leave their heirs with potentially significant problems.

No matter your age, this estate planning checklist will help you get started on the process.

Create a will if you don’t have one. It’s startling how many people never get around to this, even to the point of buying a will-in-a-box at a stationery store or setting up a will online.

How many Americans lack wills?  The budget legal service website RocketLawyer conducts an annual survey on this topic, and its 2015 survey results found that 54 percent of Americans ages 55 to 64 and fully 70 percent of Americans ages 45 to 54 don’t have a will in place.

A valid will could save your heirs from some expensive headaches related to probate and ambiguity.

Complement your will with related documents. Depending on your estate planning needs, this could include some kind of trust or even multiple trusts, durable financial and medical powers of attorney, a living will and other items. A good estate plan anticipates a wide range of potential circumstances. Does yours?

Review your beneficiary designations. Who’s the beneficiary of your IRA? How about your 401(k)? How about your annuity or life insurance policy? If your answer is along the lines of “it’s been a while,” check your documents and verify the designated beneficiaries.

It’s important to remember beneficiary designations take priority over the provisions of wills when it comes to retirement accounts, life insurance and other non-probate assets. If, for example, you named a child now estranged from you as beneficiary of your life insurance policy, that child remains in line to receive that death benefit when you die even if your will stipulates the money goes to someone else.

Compile asset and debt lists. Does this sound like a lot of work? It might not be. You should provide your heirs with an estate planning organizer they can reference should you pass away.

Detail your real property and personal property assets. List any real estate you own and its worth. Also list personal property items in your home, garage, backyard, warehouse, storage unit or small business that have notable monetary worth.

Another list should detail your bank and brokerage accounts, retirement accounts and any other forms of investment plus any insurance policies.

A third list should detail your credit card debts, mortgage, home equity line of credit and any outstanding consumer loans.

Consider gifting to reduce the size of your taxable estate. The lifetime individual federal gift, estate and generation-skipping tax exclusion amount is unified and set at $5.45 million for 2016. This means a married couple can transfer up to $10.9 million tax-free. In recent years, estate planning has become less about taxes and more about planning for other parts of life.

Consolidate, communicate and choose wisely.  Consolidate your “stray” IRAs and bank accounts to shorten your list, eliminate statements, reduce paperwork and cut down on administrative fees. Let your heirs know the causes and charities that mean the most to you.  Choose a reliable executor. Your executor should have copies of your will, forms of power of attorney, any kind of health care proxy or living will and any trusts you create. In fact, any of your loved ones referenced in these documents also should receive copies.

Work with professionals. Do-it-yourself estate planning is not recommended, especially if your estate is complex enough to trigger financial, legal or emotional issues among your heirs upon your passing.

As we’ve seen, money isn’t the only reason for an estate plan. You might not be a multimillionaire yet, but if you own a business, have a blended family, have children with special needs, worry about dementia or want to make things easier on your loved ones left behind, use this checklist to get started today.

      In addition, Two Rivers Trust Co. in Grand Junction offers a free estate planning boot camp, a two-hour workshop that teaches participants about the four corners of estate planning. Participants also receive a free estate planning organizer to help them get started with their checklists. The next workshop is scheduled for 11 a.m. Oct. 6. For reservations or more information, call 628-1944.

Doug May, a Chartered Financial Analyst, serves as director of the Mountain West Region for WealthSource Partners, an investment adviser registered with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. Registration with the SEC doesn’t imply a certain level of skill or training. WealthSource Partners operates offices in Grand Junction at 744 Horizon Court, Suite 350. For more information, call 263-5126 or visit