You're never too young to plan your estate. We've all seen cases where young parents die, from accidents or sudden medical situations, with no plan for their homes or families. Lack of an estate plan can open a tortuous and expensive probate process to dispose of an estate, which will often create situations the deceased did not anticipate or clearly did not intend. A good estate plan starts early and is designed so it can be adapted or modified as you age or your circumstances change. You need to check it regularly to make sure it is still right.
Inventory your assets, so you know exactly what would be in your estate. List your property with titles, deeds, account numbers and other reference information so everything can be located easily. Include furniture or family heirlooms or other objects you specifically want someone to have.
Find a good estate lawyer who's familiar with both your state and your situation. Get one who works regularly with wills, trusts, estate taxes and other inheritance matters. Make sure it's someone who will be around throughout the years, to make changes as you need to. Ask friends and relatives for advice on a reputable lawyer.
Consider creating a living trust, usually this is the best and most flexible way to insure your estate gets passed along the way you want. Pick a good trustee, a relative or close associate, someone you can count on and know will be able to deal with any complexities, such as disputes among heirs. Pick at least two trustees, so you always have an alternate. Have the lawyer draft the trust agreement to designate the trustee.
Keep all your estate documents in one place, either a home safe or a safety deposit box, where they will be available and protected from loss or theft. Put them all in one folder or container clearly labeled for your estate. Make copies of key documents, like trust agreements or life insurance policies, and give them to the trustees or to beneficiaries to only be opened upon your death.
Review your estate plan at least once a year. Record any changes, such as sale or purchase of a home or addition of some stocks or other assets, as they occur. Update any changes in beneficiaries, such as adding a child or removing a spouse because of death or divorce. Watch for any changes in state or federal laws or tax rules that might affect your estate plan and adapt your trust if needed. Don't be afraid to change your estate plan as circumstances change.
Bob Haring has been a news writer and editor for more than 50 years, mostly with the Associated Press and then as executive editor of the Tulsa, Okla. "World." Since retiring he has written freelance stories and a weekly computer security column. Haring holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri.