Seniors & Aging

Real Life | The team and the tools behind feel-good estate planning

Wisely, you’re doing the serious work of creating or periodically revising that profound “estate plan you can live with,” whether it’s yours or a loved one’s. You’ve invested lots of heart and soul over the last month or so, thinking of and about the issues, and then deciding about how they’re to be directed in the plan. It’s been challenging. Nice going! You deserve to feel good about it.

So, now what?

Start building the plan.

“Gary, I know something about all this, I’m pretty sharp, and I can absorb all the smarts from all the resources. Even so, I’d be a fool to think I can structure and document a solid, reliable, comprehensive plan.”

Absolutely right – unless you own and owe almost nothing, are entitled to no benefits, and care about no one.

This business is so ponderous, subject to countless and minutely detailed technical, legal and tax factors that only the professional team can master. Besides, there are the family’s unique dynamics. It needs the professional team.

You’re ready now to tell the team what you want. But don’t call them, yet. I think the better prepared you are to work with the team, the better and less expensive the product will be and the more comfortable you’ll feel.

Knowledge of the basics abounds. Firms in the business happily offer infomercial guidebooks and seminars about their specialties. The Internet overflows with information of every kind, including official state websites proclaiming law, procedures and documentary requirements. On the web also are cyber-versions of those infomercials and more. Educational institutions offer community-outreach courses. Book vendors, public libraries and resources like my three draft minibooks that this column is excerpted and adapted from are available.

Let’s offer you a refresher-primer about the team, what they do, and the forms of property ownership and succession that they’ll be telling you about and fashioning into your plan.

The professional team

You’ll probably not need all the ones listed here. Select the ones you need to suit your case. Some might already be on your living-life professional team. Charisma and empathy are vital, too. They even can suggest desirable improvements to your decisions.

Will it be expensive? Sure, but in the end well worth it, the same reasoning that you apply to choosing a neurosurgeon – to do the intricate, serious job right and trouble-free. Imperfect work eventually costs more in both heartache and money.

• Attorney | The team captain, responsible for all aspects. Usually engages other members as needed. The lead architect, designs myriad factors into the right structure for your objectives, then converts it all into prosaic “bullet-proof” legal documents. Often becomes a fiduciary, too.

• Banker | Services, wisdom and products to operate the plan.

• Accountant | Counts and codifies “the beans” for analysis and for reports and filings. Advises about taxes and procedures.

• Financial planner | The guru manager of assets, liabilities and income; devises financial strategies.

• Wealth management firm | Can take over all the aspects of financial and legal stewardship. Often is a one-stop entire team. Equipped to be all sorts of business and legal fiduciaries.

• Securities broker | Source of wisdom, luck (good and bad), and securities.

• Professional life insurance agent | Estate-planning savvy, insurance expert adviser, motivator. Likely the member who initially convinced you to plan your estate, and hand-holds you through the process.

• Realtor and real estate appraiser | Important when the family home and investment real estate are dominant estate assets.

• Health care providers | The best source of your prognosis and foreseeable health care needs, even better than you or your spouse is.

• Business or professional partners | Whose business careers are most impacted by your decisions, and will control or divest your enterprise.

• Pastoral advisers | If you’re strongly faith-influenced, obviously there’s solace in honoring its ideals in your decisions about later life, dying and bequeathing.

• Ombunsdmen | Some communities, churches, fraternals, charitable, and employers offer guidance, free and professional.

• The family | Besides yourself, the main reason for doing this work: Wisely welcomed into the thinking phase, so aren’t they equally desirable in the building phase, too?

The team collaborates to arrange your world into the best designs to carry out your objectives effectively, expediently, tax and expense economically, and legally unassailably, for you and your legatees. Their core tools are the titling (ownership) of your assets, the timing and the means of transferring them, and the recipients to transfer them to. You hear some of their methods referred to as “third-party ownership.”

Here’s a refresher on the most common titling tools:


Remembering that you’d rather suffer the plague than probate, or income and death taxes either. The strategy also is to title assets so that they aren’t includible in, or subsequently attributed to, the probate or tax estate. “Includible” and “attributed” invoke the bottomless black hole of regulations and statute and case law that the attorneys and the tax authorities duel about, in their endless game of “gotcha!”

• Sole (or outright) ownership | Full rights of ownership by one person. Passes through the probate estate to the legatees unless there’s a built-in beneficiary or pay-on-death provision, like in life insurance, annuities, some bank accounts, and 401ks. Designations should specify contingent recipients in case the primary beneficiaries don’t survive for more than a few days or months.

Did you know that someone else can own the life insurance policies on your life, thus avoiding death taxes on the proceeds? But, regardless of ownership, always beneficiary the insurance so that the death proceeds never will fall into your probate or tax estate for lack of a living named beneficiary, unless you deliberately want them to for the purposes of providing the estate’s liquidity needs.

• Joint ownership | Two or more persons together own the property in undivided shares. “Tenancy by the entirety” if spouses owning the family home. At death, one’s passes directly to the other joint owner(s).

• Tenancy in common | Divided shares, meaning two or more persons own divided separate shares of the property. One’s share goes into the probate estate, and passes to the legatees.

• Life Estate | A right to use and to enjoy the property during one’s life, but someone else owns it.

• Trusts | Various kinds. You’ve heard of the personal revocable (You can change it) inter-vivos (during life) trust that becomes irrevocable (cast-in-stone) at death. It owns your assets, but you can control everything by being the trustee. It has its own built-in “will” for your legatees. The assets by-pass the probate estate. It’s almost as common as, and is indeed a campanion to, the property will.

Other trusts own and distribute life insurance proceeds, manage assets after death, exist to avoid death and income taxes for one or more family generations, to shepherd philanthropic interests, and serve countless other purposes.

• Business entities | Stock or non-stock corporations, general or limited partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs and LLPs, hybrid partnerships enjoying corporation-like limited liability), or sole proprietorships, professional corporations (PCs) and/or professional associations (PAs), and various other alphabet-soup-labeled entities.

OK, if you don’t feel quite ready to make that call yet, hopefully you will after we explore the final product, the documents themselves, next time. Stay tuned.