For many, a strategy for estate planning is a must-have at any stage in life.
This ensures that your wishes on how to handle your wealth, health, and children are carried out after your demise or a medical emergency that leaves you incapacitated.
Having the proper documents in place makes it easier, faster, and less expensive for your wishes to be executed.
Here are the most common—and important—estate planning documents to know about, create, and routinely update throughout your life.
Typical Estate Planning Documents
Last Will and Testament
The foundation of your estate planning checklist is your last will and testament. This legal document essentially lets you list your instructions on what to do with your assets after you die.
Your will also names an executor, who is the individual you choose to carry out your final wishes. It should be someone you trust who can handle major financial responsibilities since they’ll be tasked with navigating both your family and financial institutions.
Other information in your will includes who will take possession of your assets that don’t have a beneficiary assigned. You can also outline your funeral preferences and other final wishes.
If you die without a will, the state takes over and names a representative on your behalf to handle the distribution of your property. The court could name your spouse or close family member to handle the job, or it could choose a public trustee if no one agrees to the job.
The probate process takes a long time, and your family typically won’t be able to access any of your accounts until an executor is named. That’s why it’s best to get started on your estate planning documentation as soon as possible.
Letter of Intent
A letter of intent is another component of your estate planning checklist that allows you to leave an explanation to your loved ones. You can compose an emotional letter if you want, or stick to information that will make the transition easier on your family.
The letter of intent is a good place to list details like your bank accounts, passwords, and other important information your executor or family members may need. For instance, you may have joint accounts with your spouse. But if you’re the one who manages that money or is responsible for certain shared bills, you can explain how to handle those ongoing expenses moving forward.
Also include the physical locations of important documents and assets, like property titles, jewelry, or art.
Beneficiary and Guardianship Designations
Your will documents should include designations for account beneficiaries and, if applicable, a guardianship for any minor children.
Some financial accounts require that you list a beneficiary; others do not. A standard checking account probably doesn’t require you to list a beneficiary, but you can likely volunteer to add one.
IRAs and life insurance do require you to add a beneficiary, regardless of the size of your account or policy.
While you do need to fill out the paperwork directly with the financial institution, you can also list your beneficiaries in your will documents to make it easier for your executor to access everything. Be sure to update beneficiaries if major life events occur, like divorce, the death of a spouse, or a birth.
Speaking of babies, you also need to designate a guardian for any dependents. You’ll need to include their names and birthdates and explicitly name the person or persons you wish to be their guardian should you die. If you’re in a two-parent household, the guardianship only goes into effect if both parents die.
Each state has its own way of handling minors if you pass away without naming a guardian. The court will likely pick a close family member to serve in the role, but it’s always better to make the decision on your own—especially if you have tense family dynamics.
Advance Medical Directive
An advance medical directive is a way to clarify your health care wishes in case you become medically incapacitated.
As part of this legal document, you can first name a durable power of attorney for health care. This basically hands over decision making to the person of your choice. It’s best to have conversations before any medical issues arise so they understand how you would prefer to move forward in certain health situations.
You can also include instructions for specific treatments in your advance medical directive. In what is known as a living will, you can list your stance on individual treatments and how your health care professionals should move forward in each scenario. For instance, you may include “do not resuscitate” orders or how you’d like organ donation to be handled (if at all).
Check your state laws on how to correctly instate an advance medical directive or living will. It’s also important to provide copies to your doctor and family members so that they have your wishes on hand.
If you are about to undergo a major medical procedure, you may be prompted to fill out an advance medical directive form before it takes place.
Power of Attorney
Another type of legal document to include in your estate planning checklist is power of attorney. It’s similar to a power of attorney for health care, but with much broader impact.
It lets you choose an individual to make all types of decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated, including financial and living decisions.
You can opt to give someone general power of attorney, and that person will simply act on your behalf moving forward. Or you can grant someone individual power of attorney, which only lets them act on your behalf during specific situations that you include in the legal document.
A power of attorney becomes dissolved in a few situations. First, it automatically goes away if you die and the other directives of your will (including the executor) go into effect. It also automatically ends if you get divorced and your spouse had power of attorney for you. Alternatively, if the person with power of attorney dies or becomes incapacitated, then they’ll no longer be able to fulfill their duties. A court can also invalidate the power of attorney document.
Just like any other role you assign in your estate planning documents, picking the right person to have power of attorney can have a major effect on your life. It’s best to choose wisely and have open conversations about your wishes if you were to no longer be able to take care of yourself.
Estate planning documents dictate a person’s wishes about how to handle their wealth, health, and children upon their incapacitation or demise. An estate plan can minimize the delays, expense, and loss of privacy of the probate process.
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