When executing an estate plan, you will likely dedicate considerable time to deciding how you want your assets to be distributed and to whom. Your estate plan is the legal map that will guide those you leave behind in the distribution of your property. That said, none of your careful consideration will amount to anything if you don't ensure your estate plan has been executed properly, which means it is valid and legal.
Your estate plan may be as simple as having a last will and testament, but most people find that other legal documents, such as a living will or a living trust, are also important. Whether you include these is a personal decision, but they each must be executed properly for your estate plan to be complete as well.
Although specific laws vary by state, here are some guidelines to help you make sure you have fully executed all parts of your estate plan.
Last will and testament
A last will and testament provides instructions for the distribution of your assets of the testator (the person writing the will) after your death. Wills must usually be signed by the testator as well as two witnesses. Some jurisdictions require witnesses to be disinterested, meaning they do not stand to benefit from the will at the time of your death.
While it is not required, you may consider signing a self-proving affidavit to swear that your will meets your state's requirements for validity. This affidavit should be signed in front of a notary public and attached to the will.
A living trust is a legal document that allows you as the grantor, or creator of the trust, to use assets during your lifetime and control their distribution upon your death. You generally act as trustee of the trust during your lifetime and you name a successor trustee to handle distribution of the trust's assets after your death.
To fully execute a living trust, you must fund the trust, which is the process of transferring ownership of assets to the trust. You can choose assets you own to place in the trust, but remember that the trust is not functional until you fund it—and leaving it unfunded could leave a gaping hole in your estate plan.
A living will or other advance directive expresses your desires regarding medical treatment should you become unable to communicate them. You may also choose to execute a healthcare power of attorney, which designates someone specifically to communicate your specific wishes.
The requirements for executing a living will are often similar to those for executing a last will and testament. State laws generally require your signature as well as the signatures of your witnesses, which may or may not have to occur in front of a notary public.
In addition to a last will and testament, living trust, and living will, you may wish to have additional documents included in your estate plan. To ensure that your entire estate plan is executed properly, be sure that each of those individual documents is executed properly. A knowledgeable estate planning professional can be invaluable in making sure your loved ones are taken care of when you're gone.
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