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If you've struggled to get ahead financially for most of your life, you might see an inheritance from your parents as your best chance for becoming financially comfortable or even wealthy. But counting on an inheritance to solve your financial problems is a bad idea. Most importantly, receiving an inheritance requires the death of people you love. Further, you might not get the windfall you were expecting. Here's why:

Your parents might spend the money themselves

Your parents worked hard for decades to earn their nest eggs, and they may not be planning on leaving much behind. If they're fortunate enough to have more than they need to retire comfortably, they might spend the extra money on luxuries they couldn't afford when they were younger. Also, health care costs eat up a significant portion of most people's retirement savings, and with all the uncertainty surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it's impossible to predict what health care costs will look like in the future. If your parents live longer than anticipated, their retirement savings may simply run out. In fact, you might end up supporting your parents in their old age -- quite the opposite of an inheritance.

The fine print in your parents' retirement plans could also limit what you receive when they die.

"Retirees that are currently in retirement tend to have defined-benefit pension plans, and once they die, so does the payment stream," says Michael J. Fitzgerald, the president of Fitzgerald Financial Partners, a fee-only financial adviser in Houston.

You don't know what you're getting

Some parents tell their children exactly what they plan to leave when they die. Other parents prefer to keep their financial affairs private. If your parents fall into the latter category, there's no point in counting on an inheritance; you don't know if your parents are planning to leave you $500,000 or $1. And they might be planning to leave their assets to a favorite charity, or they might not have any assets. If you have siblings, any money your parents leave likely will be divided among you.

A typical inheritance won't change your life

Many people don't receive any inheritance, and of those who do, the median inheritance for today's baby boomers is only $64,000, according to a 2010 study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. That's nothing to sniff at, but it's probably not enough to dramatically change most people's lives.

In fact, you might burn through any money you do receive. Estate planning attorney John O'Grady, of San Francisco, says that most people quickly spend an inheritance of any amount unless they create a long-term plan for the windfall. Without a plan, the heirs may spend the money on big-ticket items, debt payments or donations, especially because they are not thinking clearly in the aftermath of a loved one's death.

Probate and taxes often take a bite

If your parents don't do any estate planning before they pass away, the assets they leave you could take a significant hit from probate and taxes. Probate is the process by which a court reviews the deceased's will for validity and authenticity, and appoints the executor named in the will to distribute the deceased's assets. If there is no will, the person is said to have died intestate. Probate will then appoint an administrator to distribute the assets according to state laws. Regardless of what your parents may have wanted, if they didn't formalize their wishes in writing, the state will make the decisions about their assets.

The court and attorney fees associated with probate typically reduce the value of the deceased's estate by 3% to 7%. The estate administrator or executor may also charge a fee; settling an estate can be a complex and time-consuming job. If anyone contests the will, these fees will increase. Also, the probate process can take as long as two years, which means that even if you are due an inheritance, you may be waiting longer than you thought to receive it.

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Your parents can avoid probate and its associated fees and waiting period by creating a trust and placing their property in it, but many people never establish trusts because they don't understand them or think they are only for rich people. Trusts aren't just for the wealthy, though, and a qualified estate-planning attorney can explain how they work and help parents establish the best financial arrangement.

Whether your inheritance will be subject to estate taxes depends on its size and on ever-changing state and federal estate-tax exemptions. In 2012, the federal estate tax exemption is $5,120,000.

The money could come with restrictions

If your parents place their assets into certain types of trusts, they can continue to control their money even after they're gone. For example, parents can use an incentive trust to reward beneficiaries with trust money for particular behaviors, such as earning a college degree, holding a job or working in the family business. They can also use trusts to punish undesirable behaviors, such as illegal drug use, by withholding money from would-be beneficiaries. Trusts can also be set up so beneficiaries receive their inheritance gradually as they reach certain age milestones.

The bottom line

"Relying on an inheritance can diminish an individual's work ethic and feeling of self-worth," says Andrew M. Aran, a financial adviser and partner with Regency Wealth Management in Midland Park, N.J.

Further, there are many uncertainties surrounding whether you will receive an inheritance, and how large it will be. For all of these reasons, the best way to provide for your financial future is to take steps you have complete control over, such as maximizing your income, minimizing your expenses, budgeting wisely and funding your own retirement account.

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