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Mutual fund families often offer some great pieces of educational information about various subjects. Two such families, Vanguard and Oppenheimer, each have new brochures about estate planning and Social Security. Both are free for the asking.

One of the great things about having a portfolio of mutual funds is watching the value of them grow over time. But as that portfolio grows, so does the value of your estate.

Estate planning isn't just for the very rich these days. It could be for you if the value of your property is in excess of $675,000, after allowable deductions and credits. That word "property" includes everything like your car, boat, jewelry, real estate, home furnishings, insurance proceeds, IRAs, annuities, mutual funds, cash and more. Allowable deductions include things such funeral expenses and probate fees, etc. And the credit, the federal unified tax credit, which in the year 2000 and 2001 stands at $675,000 but gets bumped up to $1million in the year 2006.

Having a nest-egg in access of $675,000 isn't as far-fetched a notion today as it was say 20 years ago---especially if you've been a long-term fund investor. Understanding the ins and outs of estate planning, however, can be far more challenging.

Vanguard's Estate Planning Basics, a brochure from their Plain Talk Library series is a must-have for anyone unfamiliar with the world of estate planning. In it you'll learn about why having an estate plan is important, how the federal estate tax works, how personal trusts can help in estate planning, how giving away assets now can reduce your estate's tax bill and much more.

Here's a look at the estate planning checklist you'll find in the booklet:

  • Draft a will.

  • Name guardians for minor children.

  • Select capable executors and trustees.

  • Take full advantage of the $675,000 protected by the federal unified tax credit.

  • Consider using $10,000 annual gift exclusion.

  • Draft powers of attorney for health-care and financial matters.

  • Write a living will.

  • Write a letter of instruction.

  • Prepare an inventory of assets that include location and value.

  • Create a listing of key people to contact (such as executor, trustee, and attorney) and provide copies to appropriate relatives and advisers.

To order a free copy of Vanguard's Estate Planning Basics, call 1-800-662-7447, on business days from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Hand-in-hand with estate planning come retirement income sources.

If you've been a good planner--- and lucky---when it comes time to retire the income you'll have to live on will be from a number of different sources such as your personal investments, inheritances, various pension and qualified retirement accounts and Social Security.

While the future of Social Security is a hot political topic, the benefits you'll receive from the Social Security Administration (SSA) are pretty clear-cut: Decide to retire early, at age 62, and your monthly check won't be as large as it could be if you'd wait a few years.

To help folks with their long-term financial planning, the SSA started sending out annual statements in 1999 to every working person over the age of 25. Included in the statements are the projected monthly Social Security benefits one is likely to receive at various retirement ages; survivor benefits available to heirs; a historical earnings record, and an overview of other benefits like Medicare and Medicaid. To help you understand those statements, OppenheimerFunds has new brochure titled What You Can Expect From Social Security.

Along with information about interpreting the benefits statements, the brochure includes some Social Security tidbits. For instance, the percentage of Americans over the age of 65 in 1946 totaled 11 million or 8 percent of the population; in 1999, it was 13 percent; and by the year 2030, will be 20 percent, or 70 million people. And, the first monthly social security check went out in 1940, to Ida May Fuller who lived to be 100 and received $22,888 in benefits.

If you're planning on retiring in the near future, there's also a chart showing the year in which you can receive full Social Security benefits. FYI, the average monthly benefit for someone retiring this year, 2000, based on a typical retiree who has paid into the Social Security system over their entire career is $858, if they retire at age 62 and $987 should they retire at age 65. The maximum monthly benefit at age 62 is $1,248, and $1,433 at age 65.

Because monthly checks from the SSA weren't ever intended---and aren't likely--- to cover all your living expenses during those golden years, the more you know about the benefits you're likely to receive, the better long-term retirement income planning you'll be.

Oppenheimer's, What You Can Expect From Social Security, is free and can be ordered by calling 1-800-525-7048.

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