What You Need to Know About Estate Planning

A new book makes planning for death and taxes as easy to handle as possible.

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It’s hard to get people excited to talk about estate planning, much less take action to prepare for the inevitable. But in The Wall Street Journal Complete Estate Planning Guidebook, Rachel Emma Silverman attempts to do just that. After convincing readers that they do, indeed, need a will and other estate planning tools, she breaks down the tasks into manageable, bite-size pieces. US News recently spoke with Silverman about common estate planning mistakes, how to get started, and how to discuss potentially awkward topics with family members. Excerpts:

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Who needs to think about estate planning? Does a single 20-something?

Everybody needs to think about estate planning. Unfortunately, we’re all going to die, and many of us might even grow incapacitated. You just never know. Estate planning isn’t just about assets. Even if you’re a single 20-something, you might not have a lot of assets or family support, but estate planning also involves medical directives, which means designating how you want to be cared for when you can’t care for yourself. Unfortunately, there are many tragic examples of even 20-somethings facing those kinds of situations, so it’s important that even young people make estate plans.

What are the biggest estate planning mistakes that people make?

The number one mistake is not doing anything at all. There are so many examples of people who die without a will, or get sick without a medical directive. That’s when family fueds happen and it leads to expensive litigation. Or people wait too long. People decide they need an estate plan when they’re already incapacitated, so it’s too little, too late.

Another big mistake is not planning your wishes clearly enough. There are two ways to do that. You can have real, live conversations with family members explaining your wishes. That really minimizes disputes going forward. [But] it can be a really awkward conversation to have. A lawyer can also help you make your estate plans clear.

How can you overcome the hurdle of talking about estate planning in the first place?

That’s a tough one. I have a few conversation starter ideas in the book. Nobody wants to appear greedy. “Hey, Mom and Dad, what are you leaving me?” And parents don’t want to freak out their grown up children by talking about this. I think a good thing to do is to play off events in the news. Studies show there are spikes in estate planning after a big news event involving estate planning.

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Estate planning can be so complicated and expensive. Is there any way around that, especially for families on tight budgets?

Lawyers will say you should always get a lawyer, and a full package starts at about $1,000 to $1,500, and a lot more if you have a complex estate. There’s also a number of do-it-yourself options, like books and forms. Those are really controversial.

I’m a big believer that any estate plan is better than nothing at all, but the problem is, the laws change really frequently. Federal estate laws have changed four times in the past four years, and state laws are also changing. There are a lot of variables, and some reports have shown that these programs don’t necessarily reflect all those variables, so they are problematic. The safest thing to do is to go to a lawyer. If you really can’t afford one, do the basics with a DIY plan.

The high cost of estate planning seems so unfair, like another tax on families. Does everyone really need to pay $1,000 and up?

It’s a huge problem and it’s becoming an even bigger problem. It’s a systematic problem within the legal industry, and a lot of law firms are dropping their estate planning practices because they’re not that lucrative, so those that remain have to raise their rates even more. It’s a problem. The way around that is the proliferation of online programs. Unfortunately right now, because estate tax laws are in such flux, there is not a perfect solution. Hopefully it will get better.

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What about life insurance—how much should people get?

I avoided that question in the book, because there are so many variables. It depends on your current income, the number of children you have, your spouse’s income. I didn’t want to give any blanket tips. I bought life insurance before the birth of our first son, and the broker just asked a lot of questions and ran some numbers, and we just kind of made up a number. It’s an art, rather than a science.

How often should people review and update their estate plans?

Often—at least every three years. The laws keep changing, and the current law is only valid through 2012. And people’s wealth is constantly changing, and family situations constantly change. People have more children and children get married. There are a lot of variables, and estate plans should reflect that.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer