Estates: The Basics

The basics of estates and estate planning

Estates - The Basics

Estate planning can be intimidating, and not only because it involves contemplating an event that nobody wants to think about. Below is some basic information that our clients find helpful. If you have questions about your specific situation, please feel free to contact us directly.

What is a will?

A will is a legal document that outlines how and when someone’s property is to be distributed after their death. It names a personal representative for the estate and can contain other directives, such as:

  • Which property or assets should be placed in trust for beneficiaries
  • Who will serve as guardians and trustees for minor children
  • Instructions for how debts, taxes and other costs are to be paid
  • Designation of someone to manage the affairs of a beneficiary who is incapacitated or has special needs

How is a will settled?

After someone dies, their will may be “probated” — probate is a legal procedure, supervised by the court, for settling estates. During the probate period:

  • The executor notifies beneficiaries and provides each with a copy of the will.
  • A death notice may be published in a local newspaper and mailed to any creditors. This gives creditors a specific time period to present unpaid bills.
  • The probate attorney files the appropriate papers with the court and attends any required hearings.
  • The executor works to inventory and value assets, pay debts, pay estate and other taxes, collect benefits and file final tax returns.

When these steps are completed, the executor makes distributions to the beneficiaries (or heirs) according to the will, officially closing the estate.

How to start planning

An estate plan can shelter assets from taxation and ensure your instructions will be carried out as desired. Your attorney likely will ask you to complete these two steps:

Create an inventory

A proper estate plan starts with an inventory that includes basic financial information, as well as all major assets and liabilities — such as real estate, investments, debt and other personal obligations.

Determine objectives

These will depend on factors such as the age of the person planning their estate, the ages and needs of their family and beneficiaries, the current value of the estate and more.

Every situation is different. At Schoen Trust Company, our extensive knowledge of the estate-planning process allows us to work with your attorney to tailor a plan to your specific needs.