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Avoiding probate does not mean avoiding taxes

Estate planning is a complicated process, and writing a last will and testament alone can create some tension and make people want to put the process off. But every day without a plan for passing on property and assets puts undue risk on family, friends and benevolent organizations that deserve our care.

One alternative to a plan for turning assets into inheritances is avoiding probate, which is the legal process through which the assets of a deceased person legally become another person's property. This can be accomplished by transferring assets to people during the owner's lifetime and by making accounts "payable on death" to a beneficiary or joint signatory.

Although this does reduce the number and value of assets handled by probate, it does not necessarily reduce an estate's tax liability compared to probate. Beneficiaries other than spouses and assets other than life insurance policy payouts will generally be taxed as inheritances in Pennsylvania regardless of their mention in a will.

Living trusts are also a popular way of keeping assets out of wills. Lawyers will often recommend the creation of a "pour-over" will along with a living trust so other assets assigned to an individual are added to the trust and its legal protections.

Most estate planning decisions are best made on an individual basis, as different assets will face different liability concerns. One of the best approaches to smart estate planning is to consult with an attorney to determine the best way to preserve and convey properties and assets to the next generation of family, friends or charity.

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