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Estate Planning Checklist

Updated: May 7

There is a lot that goes into estate planning. It is an involved, time-consuming process, but it’s worth it. Your loved ones will greatly benefit and be thankful for the time and money you will save them.

To make sure your estate plan has everything it needs, we have created a detailed estate planning checklist so you don’t skip any important steps.

What You Need To Do for Your Estate Plan

As mentioned above, we want to make sure your estate plan contains all the documents you need.

1. Catalog Your Assets

Creating a detailed list of everything you own is a cornerstone in the estate planning process. Starting early gives you time to thoroughly think about all of your assets to avoid leaving anything out. Plus, cataloging your possessions makes creating your will a much quicker process.

Since you will be listing everything you own, your list will probably have some length. The more assets you can identify, the easier it will be to assign loved ones to receive them after your passing.

Some important assets to remember are:

  • Jewelry

  • Clothes

  • Furniture

  • 401(K)

  • Savings Accounts

  • Cash

  • Stocks and Bonds

2. Catalog Your Debts

Most debts will not disappear after you pass, so you will have to designate someone to settle them for you. In many cases, whoever you assign to handle your debts will be able to use the assets you leave behind to pay the appropriate parties.

Be thorough with this step because leaving out certain debts can leave your loved ones with creditors at their door.

Remember to include:

  • Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC)

  • Car Loan(s)

  • Credit Card Debt

  • Unpaid Taxes

3. Create Your Will

Your will is where most of your belongings will be assigned to beneficiaries of your choice.

A complete will includes several important components and can help you avoid probate.

Your Beneficiary List

A will contains a list of beneficiaries and what you plan to leave each of them. It outlines exactly who is getting each part of your estate.

If you don’t list your beneficiaries, the distribution of your assets is at the hands of the court system.

Guardianship Designation

Your will should include a section that names a guardian for any of your children who are still minors at the time of your death. This is the only way to ensure they will be under the care of the person of your choice. .

Name a Caregiver for Pets

Most people consider their pets to be part of their family. If this is you, you will undoubtedly want them taken care of when you no longer can.

To avoid pets going to the wrong person, or to the pound, you must explicitly designate someone to be their caregiver.

Your Preferred Executor(s)

An executor is responsible for "executing" your final wishes outlined in your will.

They are also the ones tasked with appropriately handling unpaid debts and taxes before distributing your assets as listed in your will.

It is best practice to name a backup executor in the event the first one is unable or unwilling to carry out the task. You should talk to both people before putting them in the will, so they know what to expect when the time comes for their duties.

4. Establish Healthcare Directives

Healthcare directives give clear instructions on how you want to be cared for should you be unable to communicate your wishes. This could include things such as do not resuscitate order (DNR) or do not intubate order (DNI).

Having your healthcare directives laid out in detail will direct whoever you assign to make medical decisions for you.

5. Assign Agent(s) for Each Power of Attorney

Power of attorney (POA) designations give people of your choosing (agents) the authority to make decisions and perform certain tasks on your behalf in the event you become incapacitated. For example, your POA could cash checks, sell land, and authorize surgeries on your behalf.

There are a few POAs that give your agent specific control, but each one will end when you pass.

Unless specified, a power of attorney is almost always not durable. A non-durable power of attorney ends as soon as you become incapacitated.

On the other hand, a durable power of attorney allows your agent (the person representing you) to make decisions for you before and after incapacitation.

General Power of Attorney

A general power of attorney gives your agent a wide range of authority. It allows them to act on all matters with two exceptions. They cannot make medical decisions on your behalf, and they cannot give away or gift any of your assets.

This means that your general power of attorney agent has the authority to

  • Make business decisions

  • Sell your property

  • File your taxes

  • Access bank accounts to pay your bills

Limited Power of Attorney

A limited power of attorney gives your agent specific authority for a defined amount of time, specific tasks, or to sign specified documents.

Limited power of attorney given in a certain time frame is generally only for planned leaves of absence. For example, giving someone the authority to run a business while you are away.

Allowing an agent to handle specific tasks can be beneficial when your absence isn’t necessarily planned. It allows them to act on your behalf on certain important tasks, such as managing investment accounts.

Lastly, when you give an agent authority to sign documents, they are only able to sign ones you specify. For instance, you could give a real estate agent limited power of attorney to sign documents to buy real estate, but only that.

Healthcare Power of Attorney

This is where the healthcare directives mentioned above come into effect. A healthcare power of attorney allows your agent to make medical decisions for you based on the healthcare directives that you detail.

6. Establish a Trust

A trust is an important aspect of any estate plan. It can help loved ones avoid paying thousands in taxes and waiting up to a year or more to receive funds from you.

Revocable/Living Trust

It’s called a revocable trust because, at any point during your life, you can change the beneficiaries, the terms, or revoke it entirely.

It benefits whoever is receiving it because, at the time of your death, they immediately become the owner of the account.

Irrevocable Trust

The structure of an irrevocable trust is much more rigid. Once it is created, the money or property in it cannot be altered or revoked in any way, not even by you.

Charitable trust

Charitable trusts are set up to donate the account’s contents. Those that set up charitable trusts receive certain tax benefits. To receive these benefits while living, a court must determine your contributions to the trust are enough to positively impact a sufficient number of people.

Special Needs Trust

A special needs trust is used when you intend to leave money to someone who receives government benefits. The purpose of it is to allow them to receive assets from you without being disqualified from their respective government assistance program.

Special needs trusts are designed with the intent of the money the beneficiary receives being used for their health and well-being. However, it is perfectly within the confines of the law for them to use the money for pleasure.

Tax Bypass Trust

While bypass trusts are typically used by those with sizable estates, anyone can set one up.

To better understand how a bypass trust works, and how it can be beneficial, you must first know that each person gets one estate tax exemption. However, if you are married, you only get one exemption between the two of you.

For example, if you leave a valuable plot of land to your spouse, they won’t have to pay estate taxes on it because of your exemption. However, if he or she wants to leave that land to someone after their death, the beneficiary of the property will have to pay taxes because your shared exemption had already been used.

With a tax bypass trust, you and your spouse get an estate tax exemption to pass your belongings tax-free up to $12,060,000 as of 2022.

This means your spouse won’t pay taxes on the assets they receive from you, and whoever they pass the remaining belongings to won’t either.

Totten Trust

A Totten trust is a type of revocable trust that is not accessible by the beneficiary until after your passing.

Unlike other trusts, you cannot put physical property into a Totten trust. Assets such as bank accounts, securities, and certificates of deposit are the only things that can go into it.

7. Gather Necessary Documents

To have your estate distributed as quickly as possible, you need to have all necessary documents organized and in a central location.

Some important documents you should start digging up include:

  • Your birth certificate

  • Your social security card

  • Marriage license

  • Prenuptial agreement

  • Titles to boats, cars, etc.

  • Land and property deeds

Additionally, you should keep a log of all online passwords to accounts that might need to be accessed after your death as well as bank account information.

Need Help With Planning Your Estate?

If you have any more questions or want to start your estate plan today, send us a message or give us a call! Our experienced estate planning attorney will be there for you every step of the way.

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