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Estate Planning Checklist

Topic: Estate planning

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Is your estate plan current, and does it reflect all of your wishes? Death and incapacity are never fun subjects. However, thinking about and documenting your wishes now can be a tremendous gift to your loved ones when they are coping with your death someday.

Estate planning can be complex. Fortunately, there are common elements. Whether you’re just getting started with your first estate plan or are reviewing an existing strategy, use this handy checklist to evaluate your progress:

Estate Planning Documents

The four most common estate planning tools are wills, trusts, medical directives, and powers of attorney. 

Will

Does your will include these provisions?

  • Nominated personal representative/executor
    This is the person or organization responsible for winding down your affairs when you die. You can name one or more successors/alternates.

  • Guardian for minor children or pets (if applicable.)
    Consider naming an alternate guardian, in case your first choice is not able to serve.

  • Distribution wishes
    Your will controls certain estate assets. Clearly identify to whom those assets should pass, and in what percentages. Consider also how assets should pass if a beneficiary pre-deceases you.

Trust

If including a trust in your estate plan, consider the following:

  • Your Trustee
    Name a trustee. This person or company will be responsible for managing and distributing trust assets according to your wishes. You can name one or more successor trustees, in case the first-named trustee cannot serve.

  • Distribution of trust assets
    Trusts provide a way to manage assets for a period of years or even decades after your death. If you have minor beneficiaries or financially-irresponsible beneficiaries, consider the types of distributions your trustee should be empowered to make and at what age(s) your beneficiaries should be able to receive lump-sum distributions.

Advance Directives for Medical Care

Have you given someone else authority to speak for you and make medical decisions on your behalf, if you reach a point where you cannot speak for yourself? Do they know how to make decisions that align with your values? You can do this by creating advance directives. In some states, these are separate documents. In others, they are combined into a single Health Care Directive.

  • A Living Will
    Also known as an advance care plan, these documents express your wishes for end-of-life care.

  • A Health Care Proxy form
    Sometimes called a health care power of attorney, a health care proxy form authorizes a chosen individual to make decisions for your medical care if you are incapacitated. If you have a living will, they will use this document for guidance in honoring your wishes.

Learn more and download your state's advance directive forms.

Power of Attorney for Finances

A financial power of attorney gives a trusted family member, friend, or a professional fiduciary authority to manage your finances if you are incapacitated or unable to make financial decisions due to dementia. After you die, the power of attorney is voided.

  • Have you named a trusted person who is capable of handling your financial affairs? Consider naming one or more successor agents.

  • Is your power of attorney broad or does it limit your agent’s authority to certain types of transactions?

  • Is your directive “durable,” so it will remain in effect during periods of lifetime incapacity?

  • Should your agent(s) be able to transfer your assets into their own name(s)? There are pros and cons to saying “yes,” so consider your options.

  • Will your agent have to provide periodic accountings of transactions handled? If so, does your form indicate to whom and how frequently such accountings should be sent?

Learn more about POAs by reading Power of Attorney for Finances Explained.

Other Considerations

When creating or reviewing your estate plan, remember that your legal documents only encompass one part of your overall plan. Consider the following:

  • Property titles
    Review titles for real estate, bank accounts, vehicles, and other property. Do they reflect your wishes? You may be able to add pay on death (POD) or transfer on death (TOD) designations to some types of assets.

  • Beneficiary designations
    Review beneficiary designations for life insurance and retirement accounts to ensure they reflect your wishes.

  • Digital assets
    Will your personal representative or executor know where your digital assets are located and have you provided authorization for them to handle social media, email, websites, or digital assets with monetary value when you die?

  • Funeral & Body Preferences
    While some wills cover these preferences, there are many meaningful decisions you can make ahead of time to ease the burden on your family someday. Things like: Cremation? Burial (traditional or natural/green burial)? Viewing of the body? A celebration of life service? Where to be buried or have your ashes scattered?  How do you want to be memorialized?

This checklist is not intended as a comprehensive list but it can be a valuable starting point. There may be other considerations for your estate plan, including charitable gifting strategies, estate and gift tax planning, and more. Ultimately, your estate planning documents should be tailored for you, taking into account your specific goals and wishes.

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