How do you begin?

There are many estate planning strategies, including some that are implemented inter vivos (during life), such as making gifts, and others post-mortem (after death), such as disclaimers. Before you choose which strategies are right for you, you need to understand your particular circumstances.

Gather and analyze the facts

Understanding your particular circumstances results from gathering and analyzing the facts. The following questions may help you to accomplish this. If they are not easy to answer, you may have to make some estimates based on reasonable assumptions and expectations.

Information regarding your financial condition

  • What is your current income?
  • What is your income likely to be in the future?
  • How much do you spend each year?
  • What are your expenses likely to be in the future?
  • What are your current assets and debts?
  • Are your assets currently owned solely or jointly?
  • What estate planning strategies have you already implemented?

Family information

  • Who are the family members you intend to benefit?
  • What are the needs of each family member?

What other factors need to be considered?

Decide what your goals and objectives are in light of your particular circumstances and in light of the factors that may affect your estate. The primary factors that may affect your estate are your beneficiaries, taxes, probate, liquidity, and incapacity.


One of the largest potential expenses your estate may have to pay is taxes, which may include federal transfer taxes, state death taxes, and federal income taxes.

Federal transfer taxes–The federal transfer taxes include (1) the federal gift tax and estate tax and (2) the federal generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax.

  • Federal gift tax–Gift tax is imposed on property you transfer to others while you are living. You need a basic understanding of how the gift tax system works to minimize gift tax liability. Under the gift tax system, in 2015 you are allowed a $5,430,000 lifetime applicable exclusion amount that reduces your gift and estate tax liability (any (basic) applicable exclusion amount you use during life effectively reduces the amount that will be available at your death). Also, you are currently allowed to give $14,000 per donee gift tax free under the annual gift tax exclusion (the annual gift tax exclusion is indexed for inflation, so this amount may change in future years). Further, certain other types of transfers can be made gift tax free. You need to understand what these types of transfer are and how they work to take full advantage of them.
  • Federal estate tax–Generally speaking, estate tax is imposed on property you transfer to others at the time of your death. You need a basic understanding of how the estate tax system works for several reasons:
    • Saving your property for your beneficiaries–Estate tax rates could reach as high as 40 percent in 2015, which means that a large chunk of your estate may go to the federal government instead of your beneficiaries. If you want to preserve your estate for your beneficiaries, you’ll need to know how to minimize estate tax with respect to your property.
    • Reducing estate tax liability–Under the estate tax system, you are allowed an applicable exclusion amount that reduces your estate tax liability. Also, there are exclusions, deductions, and other credits available that allow you to pass a certain amount of your estate tax free. You need to understand what these exclusions, deductions, and credits are and how they work to take full advantage of them.
    • Providing for the payment of estate tax–Generally, estate tax must be paid within nine months after your death. To avoid depriving your beneficiaries of what you intend for them to receive, you should provide that specific and sufficient assets be set aside and used for this purpose. In addition, these assets should be sufficiently liquid to pay these expenses when they are due.
    • Planning for estate tax expense–Although calculating estate tax can be complex, you should estimate what the amount of your estate tax may be (if any), so that you can arrange to replace that wealth.
  • GST tax–Another federal transfer you need to understand is the federal generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax. The GST tax is imposed on property you transfer to an individual who is two or more generations below you (e.g., a grandchild or great-nephew). Not surprisingly, the IRS wants to levy a tax on property as it is passed from generation to generation at each and every level. The purpose of the GST tax is to keep individuals from avoiding estate tax by skipping an intermediate generation. A flat tax rate equal to the highest estate tax then in effect is imposed on every generation-skipping transfer you make over a certain amount. Currently, some states also impose their own GST tax. Check with an attorney or your state to find out what may be subject to your state’s GST tax, and how and when to file a state GST tax return.

State death taxes–States also impose their own death taxes. You should be aware of what the death tax laws are in your state and how they may affect your estate. There are three types of state death taxes: (1) estate tax, (2) inheritance tax, and (3) credit estate tax (also called a sponge tax or pickup tax). Some states also impose their own gift tax and/or generation skipping transfer tax.

  • Estate tax–State estate tax is imposed on property you transfer to others at your death, much like federal estate tax. The state estate tax calculation for most states is similar to the federal calculation.
  • Inheritance tax–Unlike estate tax, the inheritance tax is imposed on your beneficiary’s right to receive your property. Tax is due on each beneficiary’s share of your estate. Beneficiaries are grouped into classes (generally based upon their familial relationship to you) and are taxed accordingly. Although inheritance tax is due on each heir’s share of your estate, it’s your personal representative who writes the check from your estate to pay it.
  • Credit estate tax–Some states impose a credit estate tax (also referred to as a sponge tax or pickup tax).

Most states that imposed a credit estate tax have “decoupled” from the federal system (i.e., they’re imposing some form of stand-alone estate tax.)

The federal system allows a deduction for state death taxes for the estates of persons dying in 2005 and later. Prior to 2005, a credit was available.

Federal income taxes–In the estate planning context, you should be aware of three federal income tax considerations:

  1. Income taxation of trusts–If your estate plan includes the use of a trust, you need to know that a trust may be an income tax-paying entity. The trustee may be required to file an annual return and pay income taxes on trust income.
  2. Decedent’s final income tax return–Your personal representative or surviving spouse has the duty of filing your last income tax return that covers the tax year ending on the date of your death.
  3. Income taxation of your estate–Your estate is considered a separate income taxpaying entity. Your personal representative must file and pay income taxes on any income your estate receives (e.g., interest from bonds, or dividends from stock).


Probate is the court-supervised process of proving, allowing, and administering your will. The probate process can be time-consuming, expensive, and open to public scrutiny. Avoiding probate may be one of your most important goals. To develop a successful avoidance strategy, you’ll need to understand how the probate process works, how to estimate probate costs, and what is subject to probate.


Estate liquidity refers to the ability of your estate to pay taxes and other costs that arise after your death from cash and cash alternatives. If your property is mostly nonliquid (e.g., real estate, business interests), your estate may be forced to sell assets to meet its obligations as they become due. This could result in an economic loss, or your family selling assets that you intended for them to keep. Therefore, planning for estate liquidity should be one of your most important estate planning objectives.


Planning for incapacity is a vital yet often overlooked aspect of estate planning. Who will manage your property for you when you can no longer handle these responsibilities? You need to ask and answer this question because the consequences of being unprepared may have a devastating effect on your estate and loved ones. You should include plans for incapacity as a part of your overall estate plan.

What are your goals and objectives?

Your goals and objectives are personal, but you can’t formulate a successful plan without a clear and precise understanding of what they are. They can be based on your particular circumstances and the factors that may affect your estate, as discussed earlier, but your feelings and desires are just as important. The following are some goals and objectives you might consider:

  • Provide financial security for your family
  • Ensure that your property is preserved and passed on to your beneficiaries
  • Avoid disputes among family members, business owners, or with third parties (such as the IRS)
  • Provide for your children’s or grandchildren’s education
  • Provide for your favorite charity
  • Maintain control over or ensure the competent management of your property in case of incapacity
  • Minimize estate taxes and other costs
  • Avoid probate
  • Provide adequate liquidity for the settlement of your estate
  • Transfer ownership of your business to your beneficiaries

What are estate planning strategies?

An estate planning strategy is any method that facilitates the distribution of your assets and the settlement of your estate according to your wishes. There are several estate planning strategies available to you.

Intestate succession

Intestate succession is a strategy by default and is a means of transferring your property to your heirs if you have failed to make other plans such as a will or trust. State law controls how and to whom your property is distributed, who administers your estate, and who takes care of your minor children. Without directions, your opinions and feelings are not considered. Indeed, one of your primary goals in planning your estate may be to avoid intestate succession.

Last will and testament

A will is a legal document that lets you state how you want your property distributed after you die, who shall administer your estate, and who will care for your minor children. This is probably the most important tool available to you. Anyone with property or minor children should have a will.

Will substitutes

A will substitute, for example, Totten Trust and payable on death bank accounts, allows you to designate a beneficiary of certain property that will automatically pass to that beneficiary after you die and avoids passing through probate.


A trust is a separate legal entity that holds your assets that are then used for the benefit of one or more people (e.g., you, your spouse, or your children). There are different types of trusts, each serving a different purpose, and include marital trusts and charitable trusts. You will need an attorney to create a trust.

Joint ownership

Joint ownership is holding property in concert with one or more persons or entities. There are different types of joint ownership, such as tenancy in common and community property, each with different legal definitions, requirements, and consequences.

Life insurance

Life insurance is a contract under which proceeds are paid to a designated beneficiary at your death. Life insurance plays a part in most estate plans.


A gift is a transfer of property, not a bona fide sale, that you make during your life to family, friends, or charity. Making gifts can be personally gratifying as well as an effective estate planning tool.

Tax exclusions, deductions, and credits

There are several important estate planning tools you can use that are offered by the federal government. These include the annual gift tax exclusion, the applicable exclusion amount, the unlimited marital deduction, split gifts, and the charitable deduction.