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The most important and forgotten step in estate planning

You've probably heard the drill many times. Every time a celebrity dies "intestate," without a will, we hear about the importance of making your wishes known to those left behind. Or perhaps your financial advisor or attorney or spouse is waiting for you to make an estate plan.

It seems like a good thing to do but never right now.

What you might be missing is the first and most important step in estate planning: getting clear about your goals.

What do you want? What do you really want your and your family's futures to look like? When you're done preparing for those futures, how will you know?

Thinking now about what you want later

Like a road map, an estate plan is a tool to help you think about where you want to be the future and what you want to see. And it shows you what you need to do next, today, to achieve your eventual goal.

While a good attorney will have many suggestions and answers, they will also have some important questions that only you and your family know how to answer. The present is always a good time to start thinking about your goals.

A Forbes magazine article is a nice stimulus to developing estate planning goals. Here are a few ideas to get you started and to spur your thinking.

Some common goals for estate planning

Providing for the people, causes and even pets you love is usually the goal that finally gets people to create an estate plan. When you feel secure about what will happen to your spouse and/or children, the other uncertainties in life sometimes start to seem a lot less worrying.

Keeping, and passing along to your survivors, as much of your money and other assets as possible becomes a big goal for most people, especially once they stop to consider the alternatives. Minimizing the amount of assets that will just be siphoned off by taxes or creditors (or your spouse's next spouse) may sound great once you understand that you have at least some control over what happens.

Privacy, too, rises rapidly in some people's estate planning once they realize distributing your assets can be either more public or more private, depending on the strategy to pursue. What charities will receive your assets and which of your survivors will suddenly come into an inheritance are facts you might want to control, but only once you realize it's something at stake as you map out the future.

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