Everyone needs some degree of estate planning. Estate plans need to be tailored to the needs of the individual.
The following estate plan checklist will explain various types of estate planning documents, and help you evaluate those that will be of value to you.
Even if you decide to turn the matter over to an estate planning attorney, you should still have a basic understanding of what is involved.
Estate Planning Basics
A comprehensive estate plan should consider what happens in the event of both death and disability.
It should take into consideration what you want to happen to your property upon your death, the financial well-being of your family, the degree to which probate can be avoided, and how to eliminate or minimize estate taxes.
These goals can be accomplished through various means, including properly setting up ownership of assets, designating beneficiaries where possible, and executing one or more estate planning forms.
In addition to financial matters, an estate planning checklist should also consider the guardianship of any minor children, and medical treatment planning.
Any asset that has title documents (real estate, motor vehicles, etc.) can be set up so that upon your death the title automatically passes to a co-owner. Most often this is a spouse. The title document must clearly indicate that ownership is held as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, as tenants by the entireties, or as community property.
There are two potential downsides to adding someone as a joint owner. First, you will need the joint owner to agree to any sale of, or loan secured by, the property. Second, if the value of the property exceeds a certain amount, it could trigger the federal gift tax.
For some assets you can designate someone to receive the property upon your death, without giving them any current ownership rights. This is often done with bank and other financial accounts (usually called pay-on-death or POD).
Designating a beneficiary is available in almost all states for brokerage accounts, and in some states for real estate, motor vehicles, and other assets with title documents (usually called transfer-on-death or TOD).
Cover Your Debts
One way to ensure that all of your debts (including burial expenses) are paid in the event of death or disability, and that your loved ones are provided for, is through auto, homeowners, disability, and life insurance.
Get a Last Will and Testament
A last will and testament takes care of any property that must be probated. A last will can also deal with the care of any minor children (or adult children with disabilities). You designate who will get any property that hasn’t been handled through joint ownership or a beneficiary designation, appoint someone you trust as the executor of your estate, and appoint someone you trust to be the guardian or conservator of your minor or disabled children.
Consider a Living Trust
Especially if you have a large estate or many beneficiaries, a revocable living trust (“revocable” since you may revoke the trust at any time) is usually the best choice for handling property distribution, trying to avoid probate, and minimizing estate taxes.
Property title is transferred from you to the living trust, and you become the trustee. While you are still alive, you control the property. You manage the property the same as if it was still in your name and may acquire more property and add it to the trust.
Upon death, a person you appoint as your successor trustee assures that the property is transferred to those you designate as trust beneficiaries. If your assets are correctly titled in the name of the trust, the transfer of assets to your beneficiaries should not require a probate.
The successor trustee would also manage the trust if you become mentally incapacitated. People sometimes create an irrevocable living trust—most often for Medicaid planning—which can also avoid probate but requires the person creating it to give up the right to revoke it.
Consider a Financial Power of Attorney
A financial power of attorney authorizes someone you trust to act on your behalf in financial matters. The person who gives the authority is called the principal, and the person who has the authority to act for the principal is called the agent or the attorney-in-fact. Many states have an official financial power of attorney form.
Depending upon how it is worded, a power of attorney (or POA) can either become effective immediately, or upon the occurrence of a future event (such as your mental incapacity). If effective immediately, your agent may act even if you are available and not incapacitated.
If a POA becomes effective upon the occurrence of a future event, it is called a springing power of attorney, because it “springs” into effect if the event occurs. The authority conferred by a POA always ends upon the death of the principal.
Consider a Health Care Power of Attorney
A health care power of attorney designates someone you trust to make decisions regarding your health care in the event you are mentally or physically unable to make decisions for yourself. You should discuss your desires for medical treatment with your health care agent (sometimes called a surrogate).
Get a Living Will
A living will, also known as an advance directive, sets forth your wishes regarding what types of life-prolonging medical treatment you do, or do not, want in the event you become terminally ill or injured and are unable to communicate your wishes. A living will goes along with a health care power of attorney, as it can serve as a guide to your agent, or can express your wishes in the event your agent is unavailable at a crucial moment.
Make a Statement of Desires
This is not a legally binding document, but gives valuable information and guidance to your executor. It should include the information needed to clearly identify and locate all of your financial accounts, insurance policies, credit cards, vehicle loans, and mortgages. It should include contact information for relatives and close friends to be notified of your death; where assets are located (safe deposit boxes, storage units, etc.); and instructions regarding your desires for burial, cremation, funeral ceremonies, organ donation, etc.