Your Money

Five ways to bulletproof your estate plan

Five ways to bulletproof your estate plan

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The hit podcast "S-Town," which was downloaded more than 10 million times in its first four days, highlighted the importance of having a will.

While that's a good first step for anyone, estate planning is more than just wills. It is an entire strategy to protect you and your spouse in retirement and leave a legacy for your heirs.

It doesn't have to be overly complicated, said Barry Kozak, an estate lawyer with October Three Consulting in Chicago.

When Kozak teaches elder law at the John Marshall Law School and the Loyola University Chicago, he tells his students that in estate planning, "there are many happy families out there, we are just not going to hear about them."

Kozak offers five simple steps you can take to make life easier on your loved ones.

Have a pre-paid, pre-planned funeral

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It sounds bleak, yet it can save your family thousands of dollars.

"Regardless of how wealthy any family happens to be, when the moment of death arrives, there is generally no one who can both properly grieve and properly make all of the arrangements," Kozak said.

Before Kozak's mother died, she had pre-purchased a coffin and the funeral service she wanted and arranged for the coffin to be flown back a burial site in New York along with the wording on her tombstone.

You can save by shopping around and going local. A recent report from the Consumer Federation of America and the Funeral Consumers Alliance found that median prices at chain funeral homes were significantly higher than independently owned ones.

Set up a family committee to manage your revocable trust

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Unlike a will, a revocable trust covers you while you are still alive.

When a revocable trust is established, Kozak recommends a "disability committee" of family members named in the trust document to determine when the donor no longer has the required level of mental capacity.

"The committee helps you avoid going to court and dealing with an adult guardianship hearing," Kozak said.

If you have remarried, be sure to update your estate plan.

Have different lawyers develop a plan for you and your spouse

Lawyers working at a desk.
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Two lawyers hashing out details of an estate plan on behalf of each spouse is not the most romantic notion, but it prevents conflicts down the road.

For example, let's say your spouse wants her brother to be a backup trustee. You don't like your brother-in-law and fear that if you die first, he may foul up your last wishes.

A good estate lawyer can identify and remove your anxieties while keeping you in the good graces of your spouse and in-laws, Kozak said. "When you're an attorney, your loyalty is to who your client is."

Make sure the estate plans of you and your spouse have a "Titanic clause."

Don't underestimate your life expectancy

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If you go by the averages, you should expect to live until your mid-80s.

A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84, while a 65-year-old woman can expect to live until nearly age 87, according to the Social Security Administration.

However, a quarter of 65-year-olds will live past age 90 and 10 percent of 65-year-olds will live past age 95.

"Err on the side of being a little more conservative with your life expectancy estimates when estate planning," Kozak said. "That is an easy way to prevent outliving your resources."

Match your lifestyle to your income in retirement

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Sixty-three percent of workers say they will need less than $1 million for retirement, according to the latest retirement confidence survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

"You don't need a magic number to retire," Kozak said. Instead, focus on pairing all of your income from retirement plans, Social Security, rental properties and annuities with your living expenses.

"It's simply figuring out if you have enough income in savings to replace your salary," Kozak said. "If not, plan on working longer or changing your lifestyle."

The most important thing is to do that calculation. EBRI found that only 41 percent of workers and their spouses have done so.