Estate planning checklist: How to start getting your affairs in order

This estate planning checklist will help you understand and keep track of the important documents and decisions you'll need to consider to plan for the future.

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by Siege Media, contributor to LegalZoom
updated May 11, 2023 ·  7min read

A complete estate plan not only takes into account your belongings and property but also your relatives and loved ones. By planning ahead, you can minimize future stress on those closest and help ensure your wishes are.

In this checklist, we'll outline what you should consider when establishing an estate plan.

  • Take inventory of your belongings
  • Make a last will and testament
  • Find a trusted estate executor
  • Consider a living trust
  • Opt for a power of attorney
  • Write a living will
  • Prepare for estate tax obligations
  • Get your digital assets in order
  • Make a guide for your executors
  • Revisit your documents periodically

Before you start: useful documents

Although the documents you need will vary based on the size and complexity of your estate, it is useful to have the following on hand.

  • Insurance policies, especially for life and disability insurance
  • Statements for any financial accounts, like savings, retirement, or investments
  • Documents proving ownership of assets, such as mortgages, deeds, and titles
  • Balance statements for any outstanding debts

For a list specific to your situation, you may want to seek out estate planning advice from an attorney.

Estate planning checklist

The following estate plan checklist will help you evaluate which steps in the process 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.

1. Take inventory of everything you own

Any planning for what happens to your property has to begin with a list of that property so you can decide what to distribute and to whom. Take plenty of time to think about your property, listing:

  • Your home and any real property you own
  • Vehicles
  • Household furnishings
  • Clothing, jewelry, and accessories
  • Bank accounts
  • Brokerage accounts
  • Retirement accounts, life insurance, stocks, annuities

2. Make a last will and testament

Make a last will and testament to lay out who will receive your assets after your death. A last will can also include a nomination of guardian for any minor children.

If you need a quick refresher on preparing a will, view the will preparation checklist below.

In your will, you'll typically:

  • Name someone you trust as the executor of your etaste
  • Designate who will get any property that hasn't been handled through joint ownership or a beneficiary designation
  • Appoint someone you trust to be the guardian of your minor children.

3. Find a trusted executor for your estate

When it comes to choosing an executor, or manager, of your estate, it's important to pick someone you trust. This individual will be responsible for ensuring the stipulations in your will are carried out according to your wishes.

Look for people close to you who you believe to be:

  • Responsible, so they can use good judgment to carry out your wishes
  • Financially stable, so they're not seen as a risk to your estate
  • Mentally fit, so the responsibilities of executorship will be within their grasp

It's also a good idea to name at least one successor executor, ideally someone younger than your first choice. If for any reason your executor can't carry out their duties, you'll need to have a backup appointment. If not, the court may decide who becomes the executor of your will.

4. Consider a living trust

A living trust is similar to a will in that you choose how your assets are distributed. But unlike with a will, a living trust can allow your heirs to avoid probate court. A trust can also involve more upkeep because your assets need to be titled in the name of the trust. For these reasons, it is recommended that you talk to an attorney to discuss whether a living trust or last will is right for you.

5. Opt for a power of attorney (POA)

A power of attorney is a document that appoints someone you trust to handle your financial or medical affairs. The person you appoint with the authority to act on your behalf is the attorney-in-fact, while you're the principal who delegates the authority.

Depending on how it is worded, a POA can either become effective immediately or in the future. There are three types of POAs:

  • Non-durable POA: Effective immediately, lasting until you become incapacitated
  • Immediate and durable POA: Effective immediately and remains effective after you become incapacitated
  • Springing POA: Only effective once you are declared incapacitated

If the POA is effective immediately, your agent may act even if you are available and not incapacitated.

There are two other options you may want to consider when putting together an estate plan: a finaincial power of attorney and a healthcare power of attorney. A financial power of attorney authorizes someone you trust to act on your behalf in financial matters. Many states have an official financial power of attorney form. A healthcare power of attorney designates someone you trust to make decisions regarding your health care in the event you are mentally unable to make decisions for yourself. You should discuss your desires for medical treatment with your healthcare agent.

6. Write a living will

A living will, also known as an advance directive, controls decisions around end-of-life care. It's necessary to clarify 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.

In a living will, you can include your preferences on things like:

  • Breathing assistance
  • Supplemental feeding
  • Medications and treatment
  • Palliative care

You may also want to make a living will to combine with a health care power of attorney, as it can serve as a guide to your agent to follow through with your wishes. It can also express your wishes in the event your agent is unavailable at a crucial moment.

7. Consider your estate tax obligations

Read up on the Internal Revenue Service's rules on estate taxes, the limits of which change yearly. If your estate approaches that number, you should consult an attorney or tax professional to get your bases covered. You should also be sure to find out whether your state has any death and inheritance taxes that might affect your estate—some states have a lower threshold amount than the federal government does.

8. Get your digital assets in order

A social media update might be the least of your concerns while preparing your affairs, but in an age where we all have an online footprint, it's a good idea to sit down and make a list of all your digital logins and passwords for all accounts. Consider apps and sites in different categories, like:

  • Messaging and social: Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest
  • Transactions and banking: PayPal, Venmo, and Cash App

Once you have a complete list, give someone you trust the authority to access your digital assets after your death and act according to your instructions. Since your will becomes public after your death, it's a good idea to avoid listing sensitive information like passwords. Instead, make sure your executor knows where to find your list.

9. Make a guide for your executors

This is a guide to the location of property and documents and can also state your final wishes.

It should include the information needed to clearly identify and locate all of your:

  • Financial accounts
  • Insurance policies
  • Credit cards
  • Vehicle loans
  • Mortgages

It should also detail important information like:

  • Contact information for relatives and close friends to be notified of your death
  • Locations of any assets previously unaccounted for (safe deposit boxes, storage units, etc.)
  • Instructions regarding your desires for burial, cremation, funeral ceremonies, organ donation, etc.

While some of this information might be covered in a last will and testament, a statement of desires can conveniently summarize instructions for your beneficiaries and keep confusion to a minimum.

10. Review and update your documents periodically

You're not done yet! An estate plan lives and breathes just as long as you do, which means you should periodically revisit all of your estate planning documents to make sure everything is still correct and in accordance with your wishes.

Once a year, have a look at them and think about any significant life changes that could affect your estate plan, such as:

  • Births
  • Deaths
  • Marriages
  • Divorces

If any of the above happens to a named beneficiary, a chosen representative, or an appointed guardian, you should take steps to ensure your estate plan is current.

After considering these estate planning basics, you'll be ready to move forward with getting your affairs in order. If you're still unsure of where to start, bundle estate plan services together so that an attorney can answer your most pressing questions and help you prepare your paperwork.

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About the Author

Siege Media, contributor to LegalZoom

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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.