Dear Dr. Don,
My mother is 72 and is planning on leaving me her assets. Is there something I can reference on what to expect when this occurs? Any help would be well received.
— Deborah Deliberates

Dear Deborah,
One common misconception is that the beneficiaries of an estate wind up with a big tax bill. That doesn’t typically happen because the estate pays the taxes due on the assets in the estate. What you receive from the estate comes to you, in general, without a tax obligation under the 2009 tax code.

According to, “the federal estate tax, a tax imposed on assets left at death, now affects fewer than 2 (percent) of the nation’s residents — the wealthiest ones. And it’s scheduled for full repeal in 2010.”

What this really means is that the tax code concerning estate taxes is in flux. The Bankrate feature “Estate tax elimination could cost heirs” explains the changes on the horizon. Congress is working with the president to revamp the code.

The estate planning your mother does will influence how the assets pass to you upon her death. Assets pass either by will, contract or force of law. If your mother doesn’t have a valid will in place at her death, she will have died “intestate.” In such cases, the state determines how the assets not covered by contract or force of law will pass to inheritors.

The Bankrate feature “Preparing a will” can help her understand her choices in estate planning.

What it really comes down to is how to manage the estate’s assets after they pass to you. The help you need will differ depending on whether the assets are real estate, automobiles, investments or savings. Professional financial planning and investment and tax advice will serve you much better than any do-it-yourself advice book.

If you’re worried about acting as the executor of your mother’s estate, reading Mary Randolph’s “The Executor’s Guide: Settling a Loved One’s Estate or Trust” should help you become more comfortable with that role.