Don’t overlook the importance of estate planning

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By Maryellen Garrison

Have you ever asked yourself the “what if” questions?  What if something should happen to me today? What if something should happen to my spouse or business partner?  What if I have an accident that leaves me incapacitated?  
No one likes to think about these questions but the answers are very important to your surviving family members.  Thinking ahead can provide peace of mind and ensure that your wishes will be followed. If you already have your estate planning documents in order, use this as your yearly reminder to review your estate plans and ensure they are still meeting your current needs.
The estate planning process can be quite simple, depending on the size of your estate.  Use the following steps to begin your own process of estate planning.
Get organized by gathering important information and documents. Start by making a list of your assets, or everything that you own.  Be certain to include all property — your home, farm property, rental property and other business assets.  Also you will want to list other investments and assets, such as stocks, bonds, retirement plans, insurance policies, banking accounts and cash. Be sure to list whether you are the sole or joint owner.
Make a similar list of all debts owed, such as mortgages, car loans, credit cards, installments debts, etc.  If you subtract your total debts from your total assets, the result will be your net worth.  As you prepare the list of your assets and debts, also note the locations of important paperwork.  You may consider purchasing a small fireproof safe to consolidate all important papers into one place.  
Discuss with your spouse and other family members how you would like to distribute your assets to meet your estate planning objectives.  Remember, communication is important throughout the estate planning process. Sharing your estate planning objectives with your family members will help them better understand the choices you make in asset distribution.  
Finally, work with an attorney to put your plans on paper.  Depending on the size of your estate, you may also need to work with your accountant, financial planner or others to develop your complete estate plan.  Don’t be afraid to interview two or three attorneys to find a lawyer who meets your specific needs.  In addition to helping you put your plans on paper, an attorney will also be able to assist you in understanding and developing other estate planning tools such as power of attorney, trusts or gifting.
The preparation of estate planning documents can save time, as well as unnecessary delays in settling your estate.  It can result in savings on estate taxes.  However, one of the most important results gained in estate planning is the avoidance of uncertainty and confusion during a very difficult period.  

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