Do you know what happens to your assets after you die? If you do not have a will, do you realize your state will dictate how your wealth will be distributed – which might not align with your desires? To keep control of your estate, it is imperative you take steps now to establish a will and other estate planning documents.
Here is an estate planning checklist that contains what you need to discuss with your attorney to make sure your estate’s assets will end up with the beneficiaries you want without potential hassles, undue costs, and a trip to probate court.
Ensure you have your key documents in place. The more affluent you are, the more complicated your estate planning will likely be. That said, most people need some combination of these important estate planning documents:
Most people are familiar with a will, which designates where most of your assets will go after your death. What you might not realize is that assets that already have beneficiary designations will pass to heirs independently of how they are identified in your will. (Look at the next item to learn what you need to know about assets with beneficiary designations.)
With a will, you can also designate a guardian for minor children and appoint an executor to administer your estate after your passing.
Some people assume that they must use a will to bequeath everything they own to loved ones. That’s not true. For example, homes and other real estate can be passed directly to a co-owner through what’s called “joint tenancy with right of survivorship” or “tenancy by entirety.”
In addition, retirement plans, such as Individual Retirement Accounts, 401(k)s, annuities, and life insurance, should already have designated beneficiaries that you selected when you created the accounts. These estate assets will transfer to those beneficiaries without needing a will.
It’s extremely important that you review all the beneficiary designations on these accounts regularly to make sure that the designations still reflect your desires. For instance, an IRA created years ago may have your ex-husband or ex-wife as the primary beneficiary. Or you might want to name adult children as contingent beneficiaries. If you do need to make changes, it’s usually easy to update beneficiaries; often, it can be done online or with a simple form.
In addition to a will, consider creating a living trust, which is a document that allows an estate to pass its assets directly to your beneficiaries instead of going through probate court. The avoidance of probate, which can be expensive, is the living trust’s biggest selling point. Probate records are also public, so using a living trust can ensure your and your family’s privacy.
With a durable power of attorney, you choose whom you’d like to act on your behalf if you can no longer make decisions. Typically, you create two durable powers of attorney: one for finances and one for health care. The financial power of attorney allows someone to pay your bills and handle other financial matters. The health care power of attorney (also called a health care proxy) would allow someone to make decisions about your medical care. It can be helpful to have the same person hold both powers of attorney, but you should talk to your estate planning attorney about what’s best for you.
As you contemplate your own mortality, you need to give the person whom you entrust with your life as much guidance as possible. You can do so by creating an advance health care directive. Through this document, you can express what kind of medical treatment you do or do not wish to have in critical situations.
Keep a hard copy of your will and other important estate documents, including your living trust, financial durable power of attorney, health care proxy, and advance health care directives, in a secure place and let the people who need access to them, such as an executor, trustees, or close family members, know where they are. Key advisors, including your estate planning attorney and financial advisor, may also keep copies of the important documents on file for you. Ensure your close family members have contact information for your advisory team. Your advisory team should also have clear instructions about whom to contact if you are unavailable or incapacitated.
A little planning goes a long way in difficult times. The greatest gift you can give your family and friends is to ensure they know your wishes and what to do if you are unable to act for yourself.