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Are there estate planning tasks that naturally fall at year-end?

Love and marriage, soup and sandwiches, tax planning and estate planning -- some things just naturally go together, and now is a good time to sit down and look all of it over. Just before the holidays may be an especially good time to review an estate plan. Some of us are feeling more generous, more charitable toward our families before we spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with them.

The review should certainly include going through durable powers of attorney and health care directives, wills, trusts and life insurance policies. One thing people often forget to review is their retirement account, the IRA or the 401(k) that we expect will support us during our retirement. Remember, if you die while the account still has money in it, that money will pass to someone.

It will pass to someone if you have completed the beneficiary form, that is, and the form includes the correct information for the beneficiary or beneficiaries. If you have forgotten to add a beneficiary, or if you named your estate as the beneficiary, you may want to think twice.

Without a named beneficiary, the money will be added to your estate. If your estate is named by mistake or intentionally, the result is the same: The funds will be available to creditors. And, anything left over will not be distributed to your heirs until the estate is done with probate. That can take months, and during that time the funds would otherwise have had a chance to grow -- the beneficiaries could have ended up with more.

Looking at the beneficiary forms every year will also help you avoid having the wrong person named. Divorce, marriage, death -- any major life event should trigger a review of all beneficiary forms. Unless you would like your ex-mother-in-law or your worthless ex-brother-in-law to get a sudden windfall.

Adding the beneficiary forms to your checklist costs you and your heirs nothing. Forgetting to look at it could cost someone a pretty penny.

Source: Bankrate.com, "5 IRA beneficiary form mistakes to avoid," Shelly K. Schwartz, accessed Nov. 20, 2014

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