Young woman creating an estate planning checklist.

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Estate Planning Checklist - 5 Legal Documents You Must Have

Working on assembling your estate plan? Great! Make sure you cover all of your bases and include these necessary estate planning documents.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

An estate plan is an all-encompassing framework used to dictate an individual’s end-of-life wishes, as well as specific legal, financial, and medical information. Despite the singular name, estate plans are made up of several distinct legal documents. 

Our estate planning checklist will walk you through what each of these separate components are and why they are important. Read through the following to learn how to create an estate plan that accomplishes exactly what it’s supposed to, giving you peace of mind in the process.

What documents are needed for estate planning?

The collection of documents needed for estate planning ranges from a Last Will and Testament to a Power of Attorney. Each piece serves a different legal purpose, such as dictating how your assets will be distributed after death or appointing an individual to make decisions on your behalf. The following documents will guide you through the creation of a comprehensive estate plan: 

  1. Last Will and Testament

  2. Beneficiary designations

  3. Revocable Living Trust

  4. Advanced healthcare directive

  5. Power of Attorney

Last Will & Testament

What is it?

A Last Will and Testament is usually the first thing that comes up when reviewing an estate planning checklist, and for good reason. A Will is a legal document that explains your end-of-life wishes, such as funeral or memorial arrangements. 

A Will outlines information on how to close financial accounts, settle any outstanding debts, and distribute remaining belongings or finances to heirs. Most Wills also include guardianship information for pets or minor children.  

Why do I need it?

In the absence of a Last Will and Testament, your loved ones will have to navigate the often lengthy and occasionally costly process of probate court. During this time, state law will dictate procedures for how your estate is closed, as well as how your assets will be distributed. 

Minor children will typically be placed in the case of your closest living relatives. Family members will have to guess at your final wishes, and they may not have immediate access to funds to pay for these arrangements. 

How do I create it? 

The process of creating a Will is luckily very straightforward. Start by taking inventory of your assets and belongings, and consider the people you want these items distributed to. Then, think through who to name as an Executor, the person who will administer the Will. 

When you have this information in mind, you are ready to create your Last Will and Testament. Our team can guide you through this process online and send you the completed, notarized document. 

Beneficiary Designations

What is it?

A beneficiary designation is a legal document that names an individual or estate to inherit a specific asset upon your passing. These designations are most important in regards to retirement accounts, certain investment types, and insurance policies. 

While a Will specifies how your belongings will be transferred after death, beneficiary designations are created in tandem for externally held accounts. A beneficiary designation allows ownership of said account to automatically transfer– in most cases, bypassing the probate process. 

Why do I need it?

As you open certain investment or retirement accounts, you may find that the company holding the asset requires you to create a beneficiary designation. When this occurs, you will not be able to add the asset to your portfolio without one, thus limiting your investment options. 

In the case of life insurance policies, a beneficiary designation allows a loved one to immediately inherit these proceeds. This can provide crucial financial support during a difficult time. 

How do I create it? 

Creating a beneficiary designation typically starts with the insurance or investment company in charge of the asset. For example, when you take out a life insurance policy the provider will request you to submit a beneficiary designation as part of the initial set up process. 

You can also create a beneficiary designation for specific assets alongside the creation of a larger estate plan. In most cases, the information in a beneficiary designation will override what is written in the Will (if they are different). Reach out to our team to learn more about how to ensure these legal documents work in tandem to protect your assets. 

Revocable Living Trust

What is it?

A Revocable Living Trust is a legal entity that can be used to distribute assets, property, and belongings after the owner’s death. When you create a Revocable Living Trust, you transfer ownership of said assets directly into the Trust.  You can then choose to manage the assets by acting as the trustee, so long as you name a Successor Trustee for the future. 

The term “revocable” allows you to change the terms of distribution at any point, as opposed to Irrevocable Trusts. The benefit of this is that you can update your wishes to include new family members, beneficiaries, or anything else you need as life changes. 

Why do I need it?

The purpose of a Revocable Living Trust is twofold. First, it can speed up the distribution of assets to heirs. Revocable Living Trusts allow said assets to automatically transfer after death, instead of waiting for the Executor to act on the Will. 

Second, Revocable Living Trusts can provide an additional degree of privacy to your estate plan. While a Will enters into public record, Trust documents do not. Many families prefer this scenario, especially when dividing inheritances.

How do I create it? 

The setup process for a Revocable Living Trust is slightly more complex than the previously mentioned documents. You will need to list the assets you want included in the Trust, name specific beneficiaries, and draw up the Trust documents. 

The next step is to actually transfer ownership of your assets, which can involve contacting banks, transfer agents, and more. You may also need to get new deeds for property placed in a Trust. Our team is here to help you navigate every step of this process. 

Advanced Healthcare Directive

What is it?

An advanced healthcare directive is a document outlining how you want medical decisions made on your behalf, should you become unable to do so. These documents typically address a number of health scenarios, including organ donation wishes and resuscitation orders. 

Why do I need it?

By using an advanced healthcare directive, you can guide your doctors and loved ones on the type of care you could one day receive. While these documents do not always come into play, they can provide an immense sense of peace of mind as you age. 

Many individuals opt for an advanced healthcare directive that states how they might want comfort care utilized, or outlining whether they would want to be placed on artificial nutrition (tube feeding). If you know how you feel about these concerns, creating a healthcare directive can help you protect your preferences.

How do I create it? 

Typically, an advanced healthcare directive is created alongside a Will and involves designating a medical power of attorney (more on that below). As you begin creating these documents, you can include specific information about your future healthcare wishes. Talk to our team to learn more about how to make sure your estate planning documents include an advance healthcare directive.

Power of Attorney 

What is it?

A Power of Attorney (POA) is a legal document that appoints another individual in charge of your financial, medical, or other important decisions should you become unable to do so. 

There are a few different types of POA, though the most common designation is a general POA. A general POA can act in a number of settings on your behalf, including to make gifts, conduct business transactions, and more. 

Why do I need it?

 A POA is something most people never want to use, but unfortunately unexpected situations can occur. By designating a POA you can ensure that should anything happen to you, someone you trust would take over important decisions. 

Without this legal document, these responsibilities would likely be given to your spouse or a close relative. However, it could be difficult for them to navigate certain areas in the absence of an official POA. 

How do I create it? 

After you decide who to designate as your POA, outline the decisions you want to entrust the individual with. You can then enshrine these specifics in a notarized legal form. State law dictates whether or not a witness signature is required as well. 

A common route is to appoint a POA alongside the creation of your Will or advanced healthcare directive. These documents can all be completed online with the help of our services. 

Other estate planning documents to consider

There are a few additional estate planning documents you may want to include alongside the above items. These papers can bolster the efficiency of closing your estate and provide additional guidance to loved ones. While they are not necessary, the following documents are highly recommended: 

  • Proof of identity documents: It is a good idea to place your social security card, birth certificate, and any legal documents pertaining to marriage or divorce together for your estate plan. 

  • Insurance policy information: Any insurance policies, whether they be for life, home, or auto can be important for your Executor to be aware of.

  • Banking and financial information: Create a list of your financial accounts  and information for each institution. This includes credit cards, checking or savings accounts, loans, and any other account type. 

  • Titles and property deeds: Keep property titles or deeds together with your estate plan, and ensure ownership information is updated to reflect yourself, your spouse, or your Trust (as needed). 

  • A list of digital logins and passwords: Something many people forget about when estate planning is to provide loved ones with phone, computer, email, and social media  passwords. These can simply be listed on a document enclosed with your estate plan.

  • Funeral instructions: Many individuals include funeral instructions within their Will, but if not you need to list them elsewhere in your estate plan. List your preferences regarding burial or cremation options, memorial services, or anything relating to these details. 

Create your estate plan today

An estate planning checklist is a great way to guide your efforts as you take on this often intimidating process. There are numerous areas to address ranging from future health care choices to life insurance policies to possible beneficiaries. 

The contents of an estate plan will look a little different for everyone, but they all focus on the same purpose: to protect your future wishes. From healthcare to finances, the above estate planning checklist includes each component of a comprehensive estate plan. 

At Trust & Will, we can walk you through each step of the process to ensure your documents reflect your final wishes. In the end, you will have a completed estate plan that can help protect your loved ones and legacy in the future. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning options today!

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Trust & Will is an online service providing legal forms and information. We are not a law firm and we do not provide legal advice.