Does your privacy matter to you? If so, keeping the details of your estate private after you pass away is an important goal. But can the ordinary American ensure that their estate doesn't become public knowledge through probate? Here are five ways you can do just that.
1. Use the Gift Tax Exclusion. Estate planning shouldn't just be about what happens after you die. Reducing some assets while you're alive is one way to keep your matters to yourself. Each taxpayer (including married partners) have the right to gift up to $15,000 annually without having to pay a gift tax or even create a gift tax return to report it.
2. Update Your Beneficiaries. Accounts that have designated beneficiaries do not generally have to pass through probate before they can be distributed. Take a look at all your bank, retirement, and brokerage accounts to see if you have an updated beneficiary listed. If possible, designate a secondary beneficiary just in case something happens to your primary one. Otherwise, these assets could end up unwittingly involved in probate.
3. Start a Trust. Don't rule out the idea of using a trust. While most people associate the idea of a trust with those in a higher tax bracket, a simple trust can be set up even by a budget-minded individual. While this planning tool generally calls for the participation of an attorney, you don't have to get caught up with complex directives and can transfer only the assets which you want to keep from public view.
4. Use Joint Tenancy. Assets owned by two or more people equally may be designated as "joint tenancy with right of survivorship" or "tenants in common" to avoid probate. These designations allow the property — such as a home or a business interest — to pass to the surviving owner directly. While this is most common with real estate, you may be able to use joint tenancy in a variety of situations.
5. Talk With Your Family. Even if some or all of your estate has to go through probate, you can still maintain a low profile. Family conflicts over the estate or challenging a will's validity can draw unwanted attention. Preempt this by addressing points of conflict now. Talk with heirs and family members who may not be included in your plans. Get professional appraisals or valuations for some assets. And be transparent about changes you have or will make to current instructions.
Want to know more about protecting your privacy even after you're gone? Contact an estate planning attorney for more information.
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