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Whether you are estate planning for the first time or updating your documents, it's important to have a firm understanding of what you need to do and to be thorough. 

Proper planning can help you attain the best returns and avoid problems, including issues with estate tax laws. Still, many people approach this task casually. That costs them in the end and creates problems for families. 

A 2014 survey by Rocket Lawyer found that more than one in two people aged 45-64 didn't have wills. More than two in three people in the 45-54 age group don't have wills. 

Below you'll find guidelines related to Federal estate tax laws. They may help you get started or revise your estate planning. 

1. Estate tax exclusion and lifetime gift

In 2015, the estate tax and unified gift credit stood at $5.43 million. However, the value is adjusted every year due to inflation. In 2016, it rose to $5.45 million, representing a $20,000 increase.

This credit enables people to transfer estate possessions and to gift their next of kin. 

2. Annual gift exclusion amount

The law allows you to give $14,000 to as many people as you want. Exceptions to this limit include special cases, such as gifts awarded to your spouse.

Another exception is a gift awarded for education or medical care. These gifts are not taxable. However, beware of the caution to transfer the funds to the institution involved rather than to the individuals.

3. Gift tax and effective tax rate

The rate for all amounts that are taxable for estate tax reasons is usually 40%.

However, beware of a common exception, which can leave descendants of a surviving spouse with huge tax obligations if little or no estate planning has been done.

4. Portability on the amount of lifetime exclusion

Since the start of 2011, estate tax laws allowed a spouse to make the maximum use of an unused amount of the lifetime exclusion from his or her dead spouse's estate. This law actually made estate planning simpler.

It allowed spouses to take advantage of each other's exclusion amounts. In 2016, the law still allows couples to transfer a maximum of $10.9 million to their heir without exposure to taxation. You should know that estates can choose whether to transfer unused exclusion amounts to surviving spouses.

5. Estate tax and gift laws in your state

It is important to pay close attention to state laws on gifts and taxes. Some states, including Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, Tennessee and North Carolina, have revoked estate taxes, while New York and Maryland have increased exclusion amounts. 

Depending on where you live, you may be able to limit or avoid state tax obligations. 

The remarkable Warren Buffett often dispenses advice to investors. He's a good person to heed. Buffett's extraordinary success has to do with treating investments and the management of wealth with common sense. 

That means not delaying your estate planning.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.