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should begin by selecting the state law that will govern their

wishes, regardless of the location of death.

In addition, many parents want to designate emergency

guardians for their minor children. Some must plan for litigious

family members or ex-spouses. If you are unsure what goals

you should have, conduct research online, visit a law library or

contact an estate planner.

Taking Inventory.

An estate planning inventory is a lengthy

questionnaire about your money, family and obligations. You’ll

need to gather your land records, deeds, titles, mortgages, loan

documents, insurance policies, bank and brokerage account

information, judgments, existing beneficiary designations and

your existing estate plan.

The very mobile Foreign Service lifestyle makes it difficult to

maintain current copies of all these documents. You may also

find it difficult to develop enough close relationships to make

wise fiduciary designations. Avoid the impulse to rush through

the inventory without gathering the appropriate information

and designating the same person in too many fiduciary capaci-


Filling Out Your Planning Documents.

These come in many

varieties, but at a minimum they encompass beneficiary desig-

nations, wills, trusts, powers of attorney and advance directives.

Non-Probate Assets.

Beneficiary designations frequently

control the descent and distribution of more wealth than the

individual executing the will (who is known as a testator).

These designations control the passage of your non-probate

assets: Thrift Savings Plan (TSP-003), Federal Employees Group

Life Insurance (SF-2823), independent individual retirement

accounts, 401(k)s, brokerage accounts, and your final paychecks

if you’ve completed a DS-1152. (See also the DS-5002 Designa-

tion for Unpaid Annuity, SF-3102 Other Agency Designation,

SF-2808 Civil Service Retirement, and DS-7715 Variable Contri-

bution Plan). Revising these designations is a simple, effective

way to make progress on your own.

Probate Property.

Everything else you own will probably be

probate property. Double-check the small print in your titles,

mortgages and other vital paperwork to make sure. Common

examples include cash, cars, bank accounts, stock and house-

hold property. Real estate is frequently a probate asset, but it

can become a non-probate asset if the title contains language

indicating you own it as a joint tenant with rights of survivor-

ship. In that case, the terms of the joint tenancy would govern,

not your will. But barring such exceptions, your probate assets

must be in your will or the court will determine who inherits




A will distributes a testator’s probate property when he

or she dies. Most states require these documents to be in writing

and to be signed by the testator and two witnesses. They some-

times require the testator to orally declare the document to be

his or her will. Meeting these requirements gets the will into

a probate court proceeding. However, the true quality of your

will, and the likelihood that it will withstand legal challenges,

depend on the wisdom with which you have balanced the

competing interests affecting your estate. These include check-

ing your will’s compatibility with your beneficiary designations

and properly calculating total gifts to each beneficiary. A blunt

instrument that does little more than meet the legal threshold

probably misses the mark.


A trust holds and preserves property. A settlor is

someone who creates a trust by transferring property to a

trustee, frequently a spouse. The trustee then holds that prop-

erty for beneficiaries, often children. As with wills, most states

require trusts to be in writing; identify the settlor, trustee and

beneficiaries; reflect a body of assets; and impose duties on the


A trust allows you to exercise some control over your prop-

erty from beyond the grave. However, much like a will that only

satisfies legal minimums, a poorly drafted trust can complicate

estate administration. For example, it could continue holding

your property indefinitely rather than distributing it to your

beneficiaries. You must avoid leaving your fiduciaries in the

position of having to probate your estate, and dispense with

perpetual trusts.

Your Finances and Health.

A robust estate plan will include

a durable power of attorney, which grants an agent authority to

do business for the settlor. The main advantage of this mecha-

nism is that the settlor’s bills will continue to be paid and utili-

ties turned off when he or she can no longer do so. Similarly, an

Members of the Foreign

Service community should

begin by selecting the state

law that will govern their

wishes, regardless of the

location of death.