The main purpose of estate planning is to do what you can to protect and provide for your loved ones after you die. Check the projected value of your estate to see if those who are depending on you today could live off what you are leaving them. If this amount is inadequate, look into acquiring additional life insurance.
In assessing your family's needs, remember that you may owe estate tax even after implementing some estate planning techniques. If you do, your executor will need cash to pay the tax within nine months of your death. Be certain there will be enough cash when you die (consider life insurance to meet this need) or your executor may be forced to sell assets hastily, possibly receiving less than what they are worth.
If you have minor children, you will need to appoint a guardian in the event both you and your spouse or the child's other parent dies. See the section "Critical Decisions" to see how to select a guardian.
Use the "Estate Wishes" worksheet to see how you want your estate to be divided. Look back and see if assets held in joint title or those that have designated beneficiaries are consistent with your desires. For example, if you want to leave your mother $20,000 through your will, but all your assets are held in joint name with your spouse, your mother will never get this money.
Review the people on your list of beneficiaries. If they are unable to manage the money you plan to leave them, you may want to give it to someone else to manage or to place those assets in a trust. Speak to an estate planning professional about creating a trust.
When deciding how to provide for all your loved ones, remember you will not be around to control those assets. The only way to ensure that your assets are divided according to your desires is to plan carefully. It is common for estate plans to leave the entire estate to the surviving spouse. If you have children from a prior marriage, this may leave them without the support they need (assuming your spouse would not assist them, which might happen, especially if you have children in your current marriage too). If this is a concern, you may leave part of your inheritance to your children from your previous marriage in a trust, whereby your spouse could have support in an emergency; otherwise the money would be there for these children. If this strategy meets your needs, discuss it with an attorney or other estate planning professional.
If you are planning to leave your spouse a large inheritance, your spouse will have these assets free and clear. If he or she remarries, the assets could eventually be seized by the new spouse through a divorce or right of election. Your spouse may also simply be unable to manage a large amount of money. You may want to create a qualified terminable interest property trust (also known as a QTIP trust.) Under this scenario, your spouse gets all the income, and the trustee can give him or her enough trust principal to live comfortably. The balance of the assets go to your other family members when your spouse dies.
The QTIP trust is different from the credit shelter trust (see section "Saving Taxes as a Married Couple") as the property placed in the QTIP trust qualifies for the unlimited marital deduction.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Many spouses do not like the idea of having to go to a trustee each time they need money. As a compromise, some couples set up a QTIP trust only with half of the estate of the first to die (the other half of the assets go to the spouse with no strings attached.)