Since there's no time like the present, below is a decade-by-decade guide of what key items you should think about as you plan your estate.
In Your 20s:
You may be thinking that in your 20s you don't have much to worry about because you may not own that much. The likelihood is that you just started out in the workforce. But it is never too early to start planning for your future and building a strong financial footing.
If you are in your 20s, this is the time to build the nest egg. You will want to consider putting aside a small amount each month (5-10% of your income) in an IRA for your retirement. Though it may not seem like much now, remember that this money can compound from hundreds to thousands and potentially to hundreds of thousands. Also, many companies set up 401k plans for their employees. It is key to remember to name beneficiaries for your accounts and keep them updated.
It may not seem like much, but you have assets. You probably own a car. You may have bought your first home already. Take some time to write down your assets, big and small, and make a list of who you would like to receive those things should something happen to you. Once you have your list of assets, be it long or short, you can create a will so that you can ensure a quick and relatively painless distribution of your assets.
In Your 30s:
By now, it's likely you've bought a house, gotten married and/or had children. With all these milestones, you will need to make sure that you have a last will or living trust in place to take care of your family and protect everything you have been saving. Once you have children, it is especially critical to create a last will so you can name a guardian for your children should something happen to you.
If you have amassed substantial assets by your thirties or own your own business, you may want to consider a living trust, which can help assure a fast distribution of your assets, avoid unnecessary taxes, and keep your wishes private.
You will also want to consider creating a living will and durable power of attorney in addition to your last will; these documents will enable you to name someone to take care of your financial affairs and make medical decisions if you become incapacitated.
In Your 40s:
If you are in your forties, and you haven't yet begun your estate plan, it is definitely time to sit down and create a last will or living trust. You have likely purchased a house and your children may be heading into junior high or high school. At this stage, you need to have a list of your assets, including bank accounts, retirement funds, real estate, and others. Your first course of action should be to get beneficiary forms and make sure you have listed a beneficiary for each asset that allows you to do so: usually IRAs, 401ks, and life insurance policies. Then take the time to create a will so that you can assign guardianship of your children and tie up any loose ends by properly allocating your property.
If you have already prepared an estate plan prior to turning 40, be sure that you update it. Chances are that you have acquired more substantial assets as well as many more responsibilities, like paying for a child's college education or getting your retired parents settled. For this reason, you may also want to look into getting a life insurance policy to cover any large expenses like a mortgage or college tuition.
In Your 50s:
At this point in your life, you may still be helping children financially (college, weddings, grandchildren) as well as taking care of aging parents, so estate planning becomes even more crucial as you try to maintain your current responsibilities while preparing for the future.
Assuming you've already had your estate plan in place for a while now, you should periodically update it to make sure you've included all the beneficiaries—are there now grandchildren in the picture, for instance? Have you acquired or sold assets? Have you gotten married or divorced? Have you started a business? Have you moved? Have tax laws changed?
Ok, So Now What?
Follow these general guidelines and take the time to map out your estate plan by drawing up a will or living trust. Doing so will help ensure that your golden years will be as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. After all, you've earned it.
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