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"There is nothing sinister in so arranging one's affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible."

-Judge Learned Hand, 1947

Estate Documents

Are your Estate Documents in Order?

By Jeffrey W. Burzawa

As a practicing Estate attorney, I believe that a basic understanding of legal documents will assist you to determine if your Estate is in order.

  • WILL - This Determines the disposition of assets held in your name at death. You designate an Executor to carry out your intentions. A Guardian would be designated for minor children. A Trustee would also be named if assets went to a minor. A will is only effective upon death and may be changed at any time prior death.
  • POWER OF ATTORNEY - This document allows you to designate an agent who will act on your behalf in financial matters in the event of your inability to do so yourself. This power only exists during your lifetime and is terminated at death.
  • LIVING WILL - This is also refered to as an Advanced Health Care Directive. This allows you to specify the limits of health care if you are incapacitated. A Health Care Agent may be appointed to provide directives on all health care issues
  • LIVING TRUST - This document is a separate legal entity which is created during one's lifetime. The document is drafted and assets are transferred from your name into the name of the Trust. The Trust is administered by a Trustee who may be the same person who transferred the assets. There are both revocable and irrevocable trusts. A benefit of a Living Trust is the avoidance of probate.
  • PROBATE - This is the actual filing of the Will with the County on one's death. Assets owned in individual name are subject to the probate process. Insurance, retirement benefits, joint owned and Trust held assets are not subject to Probate.
  • INHERITANCE TAX - This is the tax imposed on the value of assets at death. The Rate on transfers to children is 4.5% in Pennsylvania. The maximum rate in Pennsylvania to others is 15%. Federal Estate Tax is a tax owed to the IRS but only with very large estates. In the State of Pennsylvania, a revocable trust will not reduce or eliminate the inheritence tax.

I consider the following sound advice when considering your Estate documents:

  • A Will is a must if you have a minor child or children. You are the only one who determines a guardian.
  • If you own assets in your own name, or will in the future, a will is necessary.
  • Everyone should designate an agent to be power of attorney.
  • A Living Will is a matter of personal or religious belief.
  • A Living Trust may be appropriate in certain circumstances. Be careful of national companies who offer blanket promises. You should consult with a lawyer in your County due to the specific rules in this State and your County. Such documents should only be drafted by an attorney who has knowledge with such area.
  • National software or internet sites should not be relied upon to obtain documents. The experience of a lawyer in the County you live in is critical to proper Estate documents. The so-called will kits have resulted in a backlog of Estate litigation.
  • Finally, consult a qualified lawyer when you have concerns about your Estate. Referrals or the County Bar Association is a good way to find an attorney. If I may be of assistance to you, please visit the Contact Us page for our contact information.

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