Estate planning is a comprehensive process that establishes exactly what happens with your possessions, and who can make decisions for you, in the event you become incapacitated or pass away.
As you might imagine, estate planning requires many different documents. While it might seem overwhelming at first, it can be a smooth process with the help of a professional estate planning attorney.
Plus, it's important to be as thorough as possible so loved ones don't have to deal with probate court, and so you can make sure your wishes are carried out. To make everything as easy as possible, here's what you'll need to get started with estate planning.
5 Legal Documents You Need for Estate Planning
Estate planning is an important part of getting your affairs in order, but it doesn't always look the same for everyone. The documents we discuss below are a good place to start, however, you might need additional legal documents depending on your assets.
While not every estate plan will be exactly the same, there are a few documents you need to start with:
Power of attorney for healthcare
Durable power of attorney
Letter of intent
A will outlines how your assets will be distributed after you pass away. Without a will, the state court decides how everything will be distributed, and it might not be in your best interest.
If you have children, a will also outlines who will take guardianship over any children under 18. While a will is important to have on its own, it's a crucial part of estate planning.
2. Advance Healthcare Directive s
An advance healthcare directive is a document that states how you want medical decisions to be made for you should you become unable to make decisions yourself. It also outlines the medical care you are and aren't okay with receiving during life-threatening procedures or injuries.
This document includes two main parts:
Medical power of attorney - this section dictates the person you want making medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so yourself. It's important to choose someone you trust, as well as someone who understands your viewpoints and is capable of making decisions in your best interest.
Living will - this provides detailed instructions for your ideal medical care. It includes everything from whether you want to be kept on a ventilator, if you'll accept blood transfusions, specific medical procedures you want to avoid, and any other life saving measures you do or do not want medical professionals to take.
3. Durable Power of Attorney
A durable power of attorney gives legal authority to someone to make financial decisions on your behalf. Keep in mind, this is only valid during your lifetime and they do not have the ability to make medical decisions for you.
Power of attorney isn't only utilized if someone is incapacitated– it can give someone authorization to access your bank accounts, manage real estate, and pay bills as needed.
4. Beneficiary Designations
Certain assets can easily be transferred to beneficiaries without the risk of going through probate or being mentioned in your will – these can be transferred with a simple beneficiary designation.
To set up each beneficiary designation, you will need to name the beneficiary through each institution your assets are held at.
For example, to name a beneficiary for your 401(k) account, you would contact the bank your money is invested with. To name the beneficiary of your life insurance policy, you would set it up with the company your policy is held with.
While you will designate a beneficiary through each company managing your assets, it's also important to name each beneficiary designation in a document within your estate plan. This can be as simple as a list of each account and who the beneficiary is.
5. Letter of Intent
A letter of intent, or letter of instruction, is an informal document used to tell loved ones your final wishes. This document is not legally binding – it's a way to communicate any last items or important information to loved ones.
The main purpose of a letter of intent is to let loved ones know what you want for your funeral and memorial services. It can also include items such as how you want certain pieces of personal property handled or important bank account information so they can access everything they need to.
Helpful Items to Include:
Your loved ones might already have the following information or know where to access it, but these are all helpful to include in your estate plan just in case:
Bank account information
Retirement and investment account information
Life insurance policy
Important documents including your birth certificate and social security card
Digital logins, including your computer password, phone password, and social media logins
Online login credentials for important accounts, including your bank, insurance policies, and investment accounts
What is the First Step in Estate Planning?
We know that all of the information above is a lot. But don't worry – we're here to help!
The first step when it comes to estate planning is to take inventory of your assets. Regardless of your age, income, or marital status, you have assets.
Start with a few easy things, such as:
Bank accounts - checking and savings
Personal possessions - a car, laptop, electronics, etc.
Debts - credit cards, loans, or mortgages
Investment accounts - 401(k), IRA, stocks
Can I Do Estate Planning Myself?
Technically, yes – you can set up your own estate plan.
However, this doesn't mean you should set up your own estate plan and expect it to be legally binding without having a legal professional review it.
If you just want to get started and don't have the resources to hire a lawyer right now, you can absolutely draft a will to handle a few important items – at least there will be something there if the worst happens. However, to make sure your estate plan holds up in court and everything is allocated exactly as you want it to be, it's important to enlist the help of an estate planning attorney to review everything.
Are You Ready to Start Estate Planning?
Whether you're just getting started with your estate plan or already have a few documents drafted, our experienced attorneys are here to help! Contact us today to get started!