4 essential estate planning documents

Estate planning is about more than writing a will

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by Brette Sember, J.D.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

A comprehensive estate plan typically includes four estate planning documents. These documents include a financial power of attorney, an advance care directive, and a living trust or a last will.

Here's what each of these documents accomplishes.


A will distributes assets upon death

will states who assumes ownership of your assets and belongings after you die. If you don't write a will, your assets are distributed according to plans outlined in your state's intestacy laws.

In your will, you also choose an executor. This is the person who will make sure the terms of your will are carried out exactly as you want.

A will is crucial if you have children under the age of 18. In the will, you can name a guardian who will care for your children should you and the other parent die before the kids become adults.

It's important to keep in mind that a will does not control the distribution of all assets, including but not limited to:

  • Life insurance proceeds
  • Assets held in a joint title

A power of attorney manages finances

A power of attorney document authorizes the person you choose to handle financial matters on your behalf if you are not able to. Each state has its own rules regarding power of attorney.

You can set a power of attorney up to become active only if you are incapacitated, or you can create it so that it is effective immediately if you want to use it for convenience, such as when you are out of town.

The power of attorney only applies to the specific types of matters and transactions you authorize in the document. A financial power of attorney does not grant the authority to make medical decisions on your behalf. It is only effective during your lifetime, so it is no longer active once you pass away.

Advance care directives manage your health

An advance care directive is a document that states what your wishes are for medical and end-of-life care should you be unable to make those decisions for yourself. You can spell out exactly what you do or do not want—for example, ventilators and feeding tubes.

This document is sometimes called a living will. In some states, you can include the person you select to make the decisions for you if you are unable to in this document. In other states, there is a separate document for that, called a health care power of attorney.

A living trust is an alternative to a last will

living trust allows you to take assets you own and place them into the ownership of a trust you create during your lifetime. The trust owns your assets and you manage them while you are alive.

After your death, the trustee—the person you choose to manage the trust when you can no longer do so—distributes the assets to the beneficiaries you have chosen. A living trust is private and typically does not need to go through probate court (unless disputes arise). Your beneficiaries can save the potential cost and time involved in a probate proceeding.

A living trust does not remove your assets from your use during your life. You can use your assets as you wish while you are alive. Typically, when someone chooses to have a living trust, they also create a "pour-over will" as a backup to make sure that any assets accidentally left out of the trust name are still distributed according to the terms of the trust.

Ensuring that you have these important documents for estate planning in place will allow you to fully prepare yourself and your family for whatever the future may hold.


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Brette Sember, J.D.

About the Author

Brette Sember, J.D.

Brette Sember, J.D., practiced law in New York, including divorce, mediation, family law, adoption, probate and estates,… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.