Lucy Make sure that important documents are easily accessible to those who will need them.[/caption]

Among other things, an estate plan helps to distribute your assets when you pass away. If your children are under 18 at the time of your death, you can name your chosen guardian in your estate plan. Sometimes, all you need is a simple will, however, if your life and finances are complicated, then your estate planning will most likely also be complicated.

If you have done some estate planning in the past, it is important to keep your documents up to date. Adoptions, births, marriages, divorces, and other life changes can require updates to your estate plan.

Estate planning documents are very important, and should be carefully safeguarded.  It is very important that the individuals you name to handle your legal affairs know where you keep the original documents.  Often, it is helpful to provide copies and instructions to those individuals in advance.

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UntitledThe act of passing on the family home is no longer as simple as just handing over the deed to your children. According to Smart Money magazine, “there are nearly a dozen ways to give a home to your child. And a couple are tax-free.” Yet to make this kind of exchange or transfer possible, it cannot be done last minute, and definitely needs to happen before you are no longer able to handle your affairs. “In order for the transaction to work properly,” according to Smart Money, “you’ve got to plan ahead.” The most important first step of planning is to hire an estate planning attorney to begin the complicated process.

According to CNN Money Magazine, the federal estate tax exemption, the amount you may leave to heirs free of federal tax, is permanently set at $5 million, indexed for inflation. In 2013, “estates under $5.25 million are exempt from the tax. Amounts above that are taxed up to a top rate of 40 percent.” Rather than gifting the home to your children while you are still living there, states Smart Money, it is much better to stay in your home until you die, providing that your home is below the estate-tax exemption ($5.25 million). “Even if you pay a market-rate rent to your child, the IRS might argue the home's full date-of-death value still belongs in your taxable estate.” This could leave your children with a higher tax burden than you intended.

Other options are to give the house as a gift to your children, but, according to Smart Money, “you will probably have to dip into your $5.25 million gift-tax exemption.” You can do this by using your annual $14,000 gift-tax exclusion—bear in mind that it is $14,000 per person, so if both you and your spouse gift the house to your child and his spouse, “you can offset $56,000 of the home’s value.”

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When you are ready to think about your financial future and what it means for your family, drawing up an estate plan is essential. It is a complicated process with plenty of room for mistakes and omissions, and hiring the help of a qualified estate planning attorney is important. As you begin to think about your estate plan, one major aspect is long-term care planning, which may be necessary for potential future illness or disability. The National Clearinghouse for Long Term Care Information defines long-term care (LTC) as “a range of services and supports you may need to meet your health or personal needs over a long period of time.” The Clearinghouse was developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help Americans get a grip on what it means, and to help families get started—but again, no website or information bank is a substitute for an estate planning attorney.

DuPage County Estate Planning AttorneyAccording to the Clearinghouse, “almost 70 percent of people over 65 need LTC.” In 2008, that was 21 million people in America. Many people put off planning because “they do not want to think about a time when they might need it.” However, putting it off can leave you without the LTC services you need and leave your family in a difficult situation. When you begin to plan, according to the Clearinghouse, there are some major considerations to make. You cannot predict how much money you will need, or what type of care you will require, but you can make educated guesses based on personal factors, housing considerations, and assistive technology.

Personal factors, according to the Clearinghouse, include how old you are now and your family history. If you have a disability, LTC may need to begin earlier. “Between ages 40 and 50, on average, 8 percent of people have a disability that could require long-term care services.” Housing considerations include an evaluation of your home to determine if it will be appropriate later on—is it one story? Would you need to make modifications in the event of a disability? Assistive technology refers to devices that you may need that help you communicate or move. Is there a good chance you will need special software? A walker? These can cost money, and should be taken into consideration when beginning to plan for your LTC. You can work with your estate planning attorney to determine how you will pay for the care you will need, whether it is an in-home caregiver, or living in a care facility. It is important to discuss with your lawyer the available assets and resources you have for your long-term care needs.

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TaxesThe end of 2012 saw a flurry of gifting in order to avoid proposed estate taxes by the government that was set to begin in 2013.  This was part of the fiscal cliff tax increases which also affected income taxes, payroll taxes and others.  Now that the rules are more settled after the enactment of the American Taxpayer Relief Act, it is a good time to plan your estate.

Now, the amount excluded from estate taxes is $5.25 million per person and can be doubled for couples to $10.5 million.  This is a limit that is set to be adjusted by inflation by $130,000.  A good estate plan can even limit taxes for amounts above that exemption by setting up trusts suited for your needs.   This is a lot more than the $1 million limit that was going to be law if the US government did nothing to stop the fiscal cliff.

There are also new tax limits for gifting to individuals, estate tax, and generation skipping transfers. Currently the highest rate for this tax is 40% which is a kind of compromise from the rate in 2012 to the initially proposed rate in 2013.  It increased from 35% in 2012 but is still less than the 55% rate after the expiration of Bush’s tax cuts.

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Estate planning continues to evolve as federal and state laws change over time. A recent Financial Planning article highlighted the significant impact of the fiscal cliff tax deal on the world of estate planning.

 One of the hallmarks of the tax deal was making the estate tax $5.12 million exemption permanent. Furthermore, the exemption is now adjusted with inflation, and is now portable between spouses. The practical effect of these changes is that the vast majority of individuals, except those with extreme amounts of wealth, will never fear the federal estate tax again.

For most Americans, tax cuts enacted in 2001 have now become permanent, which means that their tax rates will continue unchanged. For wealthier individuals, however, income taxes may be significantly higher. For instance, Congress has developed a new 20% tax rate on dividends and capital gains. A 3.8% Medicare tax will apply to investment income. Additionally, itemized deductions and personal exemptions will now phase out at incomes of $250,000 for single individuals and $300,000 for married couples who file a joint income tax return. It is estimated that in some cases, individuals could face a combined tax rate of more than 50%.

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