Readers Share Estate Planning Tips

Column provokes thoughts and questions on how best to plan ahead.

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I didn't expect my column on wills and estate planning to generate much controversy. Parceling out family assets isn't exactly a hot topic of public debate.

But I received many E-mails in the days after it was published, some disagreeing with the advice offered in the column and others with follow-up questions. Some experts from the estate-planning field wrote in to share their own experiences.

The biggest point of contention was over whether it is a good idea to include funeral preferences in a will. The story suggested it was, but several readers wrote in to say that wills are often not found for days or even weeks after someone's death, well after the funeral has already been planned. Thomas Bryant, an estate lawyer in Orangeburg, S.C., says a frantic client called him several years ago after discovering his sister's will. The will specified she wanted to be cremated. But it was too late—she had already been buried.

The experts I talked to all suggested putting funeral preferences in a will (and making sure family members know where to find it), but it's probably also a good idea to keep an extra description on hand with a funeral home or a family member, and to tell people what those preferences are.

Another reader was confused about the amount of money excluded from estate tax. The story explained that assets over $2 million are exempt from estate tax. (The excludable amount will rise in 2009 to $3.5 million; there will be no estate tax in 2010; and after that it is likely to change again, depending on congressional action.)

This reader had assets in excess of $2 million, but after he subtracted his debts, they came to under that amount. He called his lawyer to make sure he was in the clear, and he probably is. The IRS allows people to subtract certain deductibles, such as debt and funeral expenses, when calculating the excludable amount. Each person should consult with a lawyer if in doubt.

For some, the column generated more questions. One reader, who says he and his wife expect to leave around $350,000 in assets, wanted to know how much to pay his brother for serving as executor of the estate. Executors' fees vary by state. In South Carolina, for example, it is typically 5 percent of the value of the non-real-estate probate estate, which excludes retirement accounts and life insurance, explains Bryant. It can also be determined by an hourly rate, usually commensurate with experience.

Family members often waive executor commissions, adds Bryant, unless one person is doing a lot of work and it becomes very time consuming. The person writing the will can often specify the commission in his or her will.

Another reader, an 83-year-old in Las Vegas who had been living with her sister until her death in 2005, wanted to arrange to have both of their ashes one day placed in a mausoleum inside a cemetery, but she wasn't sure how to go about doing that. The best approach is often to stop by several nearby cemeteries and compare options and prices, which tend to vary widely. Then make sure family members or friends know of those preferences, or file them with a lawyer or a funeral home.

While funerals and estate planning may not be the most enjoyable topic to discuss, making decisions now can prevent later stress and expense. As the estate lawyer Bryant says, "You would be shocked to see how unprepared a lot of people are to die."