Estate planning is the process of planning for the allocation of your assets when you die as well as how you want to receive medical care if you become incapacitated. If done right, estate planning not only gives you control over your assets and medical care, but it also can protect your loved ones from obligations that may arise after your passing.
Estate planning involves a series of steps, and often, many documents. Estates aren’t one-size-fits-all, and some recommendations might not fit into your particular game plan. However, others may be financially devastating to loved ones if they are left out or aren’t properly executed. Review our estate planning checklist, and start protecting your assets, your loved ones, and yourself right now.
Head-to-Toe Estate Planning Checklist:
- Have Proper Insurance
- Beneficiary Designations
- Write a Living Will
- Name Powers of Attorney
- Make a Last Will and Testament
- Create a Living Trust
- Review Tax Laws
1. Have Proper Insurance
Suitable insurance, such as home, auto, and life insurance can help protect your loved ones from your liabilities and financial burdens as well as secure their future when you pass. For example, accidental death auto insurance benefits pays for death expenses in covered accidents — and so do certain life insurance plans. Without specific types of coverage, your family may have to pay out-of-pocket for death expenses. If you have lots of debt or owe significant taxes, it would be wise to obtain life insurance to shield your family from your obligations. Plans and, more importantly, actual coverage in this arena should be researched very carefully.
2. Beneficiary Designations
Some assets can be transferred upon death without needing to designate them to someone in a formal will. Depending on your state, this may include:
- Bank accounts
- Retirement and other financial accounts
- Real estate
- Motor vehicles
- Other accounts or assets
Most of the time, if your asset allows for a beneficiary, the account will be POD (payable on death) or TOD (transferable on death) if there are title documents involved. It’s important to update your beneficiaries regularly — if an ex-spouse accidentally remained as your beneficiary on an account when you pass, it would be very difficult for your intended beneficiary, such as your current spouse or your children, to collect any payout.
3. Write a Living Will
A living will, which is a type of advance directive, lists out your medical wishes should you encounter an incapacitating event such as severe Altzeimers or a coma. A living will is only used once you can no longer make your own medical decisions and is created to guide medical staff. Some matters often documented in a living will include:
- Resuscitation (DNR)
- Surgical treatments
- Nursing home treatment/care
- Tube feeding
- Use of antibiotics
- Psychiatric treatment
- Requests not to transfer to an emergency room
- HomeStay care
- Pain management
- Organ donation
Your living will can be scanned into your medical record at your primary hospital, as well as submitted to the USACPR, which is a database where medical staff can access your advance directives.
4. Name Powers of Attorney
A power of attorney is a document that designates an agent to legally stand in your shoes and take care of certain wishes. The two main powers of attorney are durable and medical.
Durable powers surround financial, business, and legal decisions. If a durable power of attorney were to be designated, your agent can be made responsible for your bank accounts, real estate, insurance, personal property, taxes, and much more. Having this form is important because if something were to suddenly happen, a close family member or friend would not be able to access your accounts until a court granted them the ability. A durable power of attorney can be set to enact while a person is of sound mind, at the start of an incapacitating event, or at a date of the principal’s choosing.
Medical powers designate a healthcare agent and allow this agent to make medical decisions for the principal in the event that they are unable to do so themselves. The medical powers only activate once the principal is no longer of sound mind. The healthcare agent and the principal usually discuss the principal’s wishes at length before and during the signing of this document so that the agent is familiar with the principal’s wishes. A medical power of attorney is best used in combination with a living will.
5. Make a Last Will and Testament
Your will is where you can decide exactly who gets property and possessions that aren’t governed by beneficiary or joint ownership designations. If you have minor children, your will is usually where you can list guardianship designations. After your passing, your beneficiaries would likely need to attend probate court to collect any disbursements of property. Sometimes, this can take many months, and it can be very expensive. Even so, wills are very common, and around 25% of people have a will or similar document1.
6. Consider a Living Trust
A living trust is a way to bypass probate court and minimize estate taxes. Creating a revocable living trust is another way to handle and disburse property after someone’s passing, and property is “held” in the trust. The title of property is transferred from your name to that of the living trust, but you are the trustee and wield all power related to the trust. You can sell and add property to the trust, and when you pass, the person you appoint as your successor trustee handles disbursement to your beneficiaries without the need for probate. A successor trustee would also become the active trustee once you become incapacitated.
7. Review Tax Laws
Some (but not all) states charge hefty estate and inheritance taxes. There are ways to minimize these taxes, such as shielding your assets in a trust or gifting assets before you pass (many states don’t charge a gift tax2). Because each state is different, it’s best to review estate taxes3 and inheritance taxes3 specific to your state.
Know this: at the federal level, only large estates are taxed (up to 11.58 million is exempt from federal taxes — for singles, and double for married couples)4.