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Estate Planning Checklist

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At some point, you’re going need some level of estate planning. Estate plans need to be customized to the needs of the individual. Our following estate plan checklist will detail the various types of estate planning documents, and help you assess those that will be of value to you. Even if you choose to hire an estate planning attorney, you should still understand what is involved. Download the Estate Planning Checklist PDF.

1. Cover Estate Planning Basics

A thorough estate plan should determine what occurs in the event of both death and disability. It should take into consideration what you want to happen to your property when you die, the financial welfare of your family, the level of which probate can be avoided, and how to decrease or eliminate estate taxes. These goals can be achieved through different means, including appropriately setting up ownership of assets, appointing beneficiaries where possible, and initiating one or more estate planning forms. Along with the financial matters, an estate planning checklist should also take into account the guardianship of any minor children and the planning of any medical treatments.

2. Plan Ownership of Your Assets

Any asset that comes with title documents (motor vehicles, real estate, etc.) can be arranged so that upon your death the title automatically transfers to a co-owner. Usually, this will be a spouse. The title document must clearly show that ownership is maintained as joint tenants with the right to survivorship, as community property, or as tenants by the entireties.
There are two possible drawbacks when you add someone as a joint owner. One, you will need the joint owner to consent to any sale of, or loan secured by, the property. Also, if the value of the property exceeds a specific amount, it could initiate the federal gift tax.

3. Determining Beneficiaries

For some assets, you can appoint someone to receive the property upon your death, without giving them any present ownership rights, called payment on death (POD). This is typically done with a bank and other types of financial accounts. Appointing a beneficiary is available most states for brokerage accounts, and in some states for motor vehicles, real estate, and other assets with title documents, called transfer on death (TOD).

4. Cover Your Debts With Insurance

One way to guarantee that all of your debts (burial expenses included) are paid for in the event of death or disability and that your family is provided for, is through your automobile, homeowner, disability, and life insurance.

5. Get A Last Will and Testament

A last will and testament will take care of any property that has to be probated. Your last will can also address the care of any minor children or any adult children having disabilities. You designate who will receive any property that has not been handled through joint ownership or a beneficiary designation, assign someone you trust as the executor of your estate, and also appoint someone you trust to be the conservator or guardian of your minor or disabled children.

6. Consider a Living Trust

A living trust is often the preferred choice for managing property distribution, averting probate, and reducing estate taxes, especially with a sizable estate or numerous beneficiaries. Typically, people opt for a revocable living trust to bypass probate. By transferring property titles to the living trust, you act as the trustee while alive, maintaining control. You manage the property just as if it were in your name, with the flexibility to add more. After your demise, your appointed successor trustee ensures the seamless transfer of property to the trust beneficiaries, without probate. This trustee also manages the trust in the event of your mental incapacity. Some choose an irrevocable living trust, particularly for Medicaid planning, which also sidesteps probate but necessitates relinquishing the right to revoke.

7. Think about a Financial Power of Attorney

A financial power of attorney empowers a trusted person (agent) to handle financial matters on behalf of the principal. The principal provides the authority, and the agent is also referred to as the attorney-in-fact. Many states offer an official financial power of attorney document.

The power of attorney can be effective immediately or triggered by a future event, like mental incapacitation. If immediate, the agent can act even if the principal is available and not incapacitated. If activated by a future event, it’s called a springing power of attorney, triggered when the specified event occurs. The authority granted by a power of attorney ceases upon the principal’s death.

8. Think about a Health Care Power of Attorney

A health care power of attorney appoints someone you trust to make decisions in regard to your health if you are unable to make these sorts of decisions for yourself. You should speak about your wishes for medical treatment with your surrogate or health care agent.

9. Get a Living Will

A living will, often known as an advance directive, articulates your preferences concerning life-prolonging medical treatments in the event of terminal illness or incapacitation. A living will also go along with a health care power of attorney, as it can serve as a guide for your agent or can express your wishes in the event your agent is unavailable at a critical time.

10. Leave Information for Executor and Statement of Your Wishes

While not legally binding, this document provides vital guidance for your executor. It must detail information for identifying financial accounts, insurance, loans, and more. Additionally, it should include contacts for relatives and friends, asset locations, and your preferences for burial, funeral ceremonies, cremation, or organ donation.

Here is a list of items every estate plan should include:

Sources:

  1. “Estate Planning Checklist.” Legalzoom.com, 7 Aug. 2017, www.legalzoom.com/articles/estate-planning-checklist.
  2. “10 Tips to Avoid Probate.” Legalzoom.com, 15 Aug. 2017, https://www.legalzoom.com/articles/10-tips-to-avoid-probate.
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