If you’ve already created a comprehensive, well-thought-out Estate Plan, congratulations! You’re already so far ahead of the game. You should actually be proud of yourself. Seriously. Recent studies show that 55% of Americans die without a Will or Estate Plan, and more shockingly, 71.6% of Americans do not have an up-to-date plan at all.
So, you’ve completed your Estate Plan. You’ve taken the first steps toward protecting your loved ones and your legacy. But now what?
Here’s the bad news: Unfortunately, Estate Plans aren’t set-it-and-forget-it deals. There are several things you need to do after creating your plan (on a consistent and regular basis) to ensure your Estate Plan is as effective and powerful as you intend it to be.
But here’s the good news: This step-by-step guide will help you keep your plan current and solid. Whether it needs to come into play tomorrow or 50 years from now, you can be confident knowing it’ll be exactly what you need it to be.
Read on for a foolproof plan to keeping your Estate Plan as current as possible.
8 Steps For an Effective Estate Plan
Step 1: Review Asset Ownership
Are your accounts joint-owned? It can be smart to retitle accounts as joint owned so your loved ones can easily access them in the event you become incapacitated or pass away.
Do you have an attorney-in-fact? This can be accomplished in your Durable Power of Attorney (POA) document, and it gives someone authorization as a signer on any of your accounts.
Did you create a Trust? After you create a Trust, you then need to fund it. This means moving accounts and assets inside your Trust so that the Trust is the owner.
Step 2: Designate and Check Your Beneficiaries
Review all of your accounts and assets to make sure you have designated a beneficiary or have titled accounts as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD). Be sure to revisit your beneficiary designations every so often to make sure everything is still appropriate. It’s a good idea to create both primary and contingent (next in line) beneficiaries.
Step 3: Review Your Debts Often
It’s important to know how much you have in debt. Beyond that, your Estate Plan should be able to cover debts should you pass away today. Don’t forget to think about things like burial and other final expenses. Life insurance can be a good way to cover some of these final expenses.
Step 4: Declare a Homestead (if you can)
If your state lets you declare your primary residence as your Homestead, you may want to consider taking advantage of the potential property tax benefits and credit protection this can offer. Be warned, Homestead benefits can differ widely state by state, so you want to be very confident in what your state laws are.
Step 5: Know When to Update
A good rule of thumb is to update your Estate Plan after any major life event. This can include marriages, divorces, out of state moves, career moves, births or deaths. Or, it may be necessary any time you have a significantly altering status in a relationship. Even if you have no major life events, you should review and update all parts of your Estate Plan every 3 to 5 years.
Step 6: Store Your Documents
Once you’re 100% sure that your Estate Plan has been legally signed (and notarized where necessary), you need to store it in a safe place. Some people use a safe deposit box at a bank, but there are caveats to this option. Safe deposit boxes are often notoriously problematic when it comes to gaining access. And if time is of the essence, it may be a safer bet to have your documents locked in a stored, safe location in your home or office - be sure someone you trust knows the location.
Some people opt for what’s known as a Legacy Drawer, which doesn't actually need to be a literal drawer...it’s just the concept of keeping all documents together and in an easily-accessible location for loved ones to get to when the time comes.
Step 7: Make Copies and Distribute
Making copies of your Estate Plan and distributing them to the appropriate parties (for example, people you’ve named Trustee, Executor, beneficiaries or other people your plan will impact) is always a good idea. It’s a personal choice, but sometimes making your intentions known in advance can eliminate surprises and head off a lot of issues after your passing, when you’re no longer around to clarify what you want.
Step 8: Create a Statement of Desires
Your Statement of Desires is not technically legal, but it can offer very valuable guidance to your loved ones. This document can identify all of your financial accounts and share where they’re located to make the process easier for those charged with handling your estate. Things you can include in a Statement of Desires:
Contact information for all relatives and close friends
Instructions regarding your wishes on cremation or burials, funeral ceremonies and organ donations
Financial accounts (like savings, checking and other bank accounts)
Safe deposit boxes
Vehicle or other loans
Having an Estate Plan is the utmost protection you can offer your loved ones. And taking the time to ensure it’s finalized and updated when necessary is just one last, final gift you can leave to those closest to you. Use this guide to ensure you’ve got an iron-clad plan established that dots all the Is and crosses all the Ts. Your loved ones will be forever grateful you took the time to do so.