Almost everyone has an "estate." It may not be much -- just a small home, a small savings account and modest insurance -- but it's an "estate."

When you die, your estate will be taxed. How much it's taxed depends a lot on what you do now before you die.

The first thing you have to do is take stock of your situation. Start adding up how much you have. If you own your home, what's its value? Do you have life insurance? If so, that's part of your estate. Savings accounts, rental property, stocks, bonds -- all these are major items in an estate.

Then single out your debts. When you die, your estate will have to take care of your debts along with the taxes. Find out all about your investments, such as the initial purchase price, the current price and how much money they make.

Once you've assembled all your financial information, including copies of recent income-tax returns, you're ready to seek out the aid of a tax-and-estate-planning specialist. You'll want to enlist the help of a lawyer who specializes in estate planning. Most lawyers can draw up fairly simple wills, but not all lawyers can do effective estate planning. Your local bar association, bank or savings institution can give you some names.

By doing your financial inventory in advance, you can save the lawyer's time and, of course, saving a lawyer's time saves money. Your legal fee may be lower.

You'll discover that your estate probably won't have to pay any federal tax. Only a small percentage of the population (the people with considerable money) have to pay federal estate taxes.

This is because a married couple can have an estate of up to $411,000 pass on to the surviving spouse without being taxed.

Local "death taxes" are something else. Each state taxes the property left to heirs in their own way. Some more than others. This is why it's vitally important to have a local lawyer go over your estate and write your will. It rarely can be done correctly without a local lawyer.

One thing you'll want to talk over with your lawyer is the sometimes misunderstood ploy (in certain states) of putting most, if not all, property into joint ownership in an attempt to avoid taxation and the sometimes long and drawn out local probate proceedings. Joint ownership may avoid probate proceedings and, for this reason, some couples have such things as their homes listed this way. Joint ownership doesn't necessarily avoid taxation.

For example, one couple had their expensive home listed under joint ownerships. When the husband died, the home -- all of it -- was included in his estate by the tax collectors because it was purchased with his money.

If the wife had put in half of the down payment and made half the monthly mortgage payments, only half the home would have been included in the husband's estate.

Very tricky. You need a lawyer's guidance to thrash out the pros and cons of having things in joint ownership. For some people, under certain circumstances, joint ownership saves money. For others, it's bad news. Another item that should be carefully worked out with your lawyer is the naming of an executor for your will. Some couples name each other or some out-of-town relative as executor. This is a bad practice. You need someone who is readily available and has experience in handling estates. One possibility is naming your bank trust department along with a close relative as co-executors.

Q. I read that the government is considering taxing Social Security income. Is this true? If so, it's an outrage. People on Social Security have a hard time making it as it is.

A. The Advisory Council on Social Security has made a number of proposals aimed at spreading around the cost of Social Security. One of the suggestions would involve taxing one-half of a pensioner's Social Security income.

The rationale is based on the fact that employers put in half the money that goes into each worker's Social Security account. But, there is considerable opposition to this taxing proposal in Congress and it's not likely to get very far.

Q. I'm middle-aged, working and have limited means. I'd like to buy a used car because the new ones are too expensive. Any suggestions on how to avoid getting a lemon?

A. In general, it's best to buy a car that's from 2 to 4 years old with the lowest mileage possible. And, in general, you can find cars in better shape on the lots of new car dealers who keep the better trade-ins for resale. They sell the bad ones at auction.

Some people even put in "orders" for used cars with car dealers. They specify more or less the kind of car they want, and when one comes along, the dealer gives them a call.

If the car was serviced by the dealer, so much the better. You can see its repair history. As a rule, dealers will give fairly good warranties on good used cars. Check the warranty. The better the warranty, the higher the opinion the dealer has of the car.

Check prospective used cars carefully. Make a test drive to see how well the engine starts -- hot and cold. Let the wheel go and see if the car pulls to the right or left. Repeat this maneuver when applying the brakes.

Finally, check the car while standing to see if there's any rust around the doors or trunk. And, after it has stood for 20 minutes or so, see if there are drip marks underneath.

Have someone else start up the engine while you check the exhaust to see if smoke comes out. Listen for noises in the transmission and brakes when you drive.

Make the sale contingent on the car passing inspection by a mechanic from another garage or diagnostic center. A good used car can be a real bargain these days because depreciation costs are much lower. You may have to pay higher interest on your loan, but it's more than offset by your lower depreciation costs.