An Estate-Planning Checklist
'Estate planning' evokes complexity and high costs. What you need to know to get it done.
A version of this article previously appeared in July 2017.
"Estate planning" is off-putting on so many levels. Let's start with "estate," which conjures up images of the uber-wealthy setting aside giant tracts of land for the next generation. (Do I even have an estate, you wonder?) And once you delve deeper and find out that estate planning revolves around organizing your affairs in case of your death or incapacity, the project sounds even less compelling than cleaning the gutters or shredding those giant piles of paperwork that have been accumulating in your office. Then there are the costs: Properly drafted estate plans usually involve attorneys, and they like to get paid for their services.
So let’s see ... a potentially costly exercise that involves contemplating your demise and may be mainly for rich people anyway. Is it any wonder that so many people put off estate planning, and less than half of the U.S. population has drafted a will?
The good news is that you've probably already done a little bit of estate planning; you just may not be aware of it. If you've designated beneficiaries for your retirement accounts, you've started the estate-planning process. Ditto if you've picked a guardian for your young children--even if you've not yet formalized it--or compiled a list of all of your household's liabilities and assets.
Indeed, it's helpful to think of estate planning as just that: a process, rather than something that's one and done and begins and ends in an attorney's office. Crafting an estate plan involves a series of steps, some of which you’ve probably already undertaken and are probably going to need to revisit as your life unfolds.
As you do tackle your estate plan, here are the key jobs to check off your list.
Create a Master Directory
Degree of difficulty: Easy
Why you need to do it: A master directory, while not part of the official estate-planning lexicon, is simply a document enumerating your financial assets and liabilities. Having such a document helps ensure that if something happened to you, either death or disability, your loved ones wouldn't have to do any sleuthing to find your assets and be aware of any debts you owe. Moreover, a master directory can serve as the foundation for any other aspects of your estate plan. If you meet with an estate-planning attorney, for example, he or she will start the process by having you list your major assets and liabilities.
Know before you go: You can use this template as a guide to setting up your master directory or craft your own using a spreadsheet program. If you use your own spreadsheet, consider appending a separate tab with details on your digital affairs, including user names and passwords for sites where you store data, photos, and other valuable information. Because your master directory is chock-full of sensitive information, be sure to password-protect the document or keep any physical versions under lock and key. Keep your master directory up to date and alert a (preferably younger) trusted loved one to its existence, as well as how to access it in a pinch.
Degree of difficulty: Easy
Why you need to do it: Beneficiary designations will determine who ultimately inherits most of your major financial assets, trumping any bequests in your will or other parts of your estate plan.
Know before you go: You can name beneficiaries for your company retirement plan and IRA assets and use transfer on death/payable on death instruments for your taxable brokerage and bank accounts, respectively. Just be sure that your designations sync with other aspects of your estate plan and that you're giving due consideration when leaving assets to minor children and/or loved ones with special needs. Finally, plan to revisit your beneficiary designations periodically to reflect changes in your situation--what made sense a few years ago may not make sense today.
Draft a Will
Degree of difficulty: Moderate/difficult
Why you need to do it: Beneficiary designations will go a long way toward ensuring that your assets are distributed in accordance with your wishes after your death. For that reason, younger folks or people with very uncomplicated financial situations may be able to get by without wills. Most other people will want enlist an attorney to help draft a last will and testament, however. In your will, you can spell out how you'd like any assets that aren't passing through beneficiary designations--your car or household possessions, for example--to be distributed. If there's no will, any assets without beneficiary designations will be subject to state intestacy laws; those laws may not align with your wishes. Another key reason to have a will is to name an executor to handle your financial affairs after your death; if you haven't named one, a judge will appoint one, and it may not be the person you would want to handle that job. (Your can also name an executor for your digital affairs.) Finally, you can use a will to appoint guardians for your minor children in case you or your spouse cannot do so. (More on this below.)
Know before you go: If your situation is very straightforward, you may be able to use online resources to create a will, thereby avoiding hefty legal fees. Just be sure to run the finished document past an estate-planning attorney to get a second set of eyes on it; the final document will also need to be printed out, signed by two witnesses, and notarized. If your situation is even somewhat complicated--for example, you're part of a blended family or you have a loved one with special needs--paying an attorney to draft your will and any other estate-planning documents is apt to be money well spent.
Name Guardians for Minor Children If You Have Them
Degree of difficulty: Moderate
Why you need to do it: If you have minor children, it's important to name guardians to be legally responsible for them in case of your death or disability. If you haven't named a guardian for your children, a court will determine who will care for them until they reach the age of majority--18 or 21, depending on your state--and that may not be the person you would choose.
Know before you go: Guardians are typically appointed within a will. While the odds are slim that your children's guardians will ever be called upon to serve, it's still important to remember that guardianship--in contrast with, say, godparenting--is not a ceremonial role. This is not a time to think about who might expect to be guardian or worry about hurting anyone's feelings; you're looking for people closest to you who are responsible and share your values.
Before appointing anyone a guardian in your will, be sure to discuss the role with that person; prospective guardians should be comfortable with the possible demands of the job. Also consider specifying backup guardians in case the first individuals cannot serve for some reason; this is particularly important if your first-choice guardians are older than you, such as your parents.
Name Custodian for Assets Owned by Minor Children
Degree of difficulty: Moderate
Why you need to do it: If minor children will inherit any financial assets from you, you'll need to name a custodian to oversee those assets until the child reaches the age of majority. Alternatively, you could set up a trust to hold the assets until the children reach the age of majority, but naming a custodian is much more cost-effective.
Know before you go: The custodian can be the same person as the guardian or be someone else. As with a guardian, a custodian is appointed by a will. When choosing custodians, prioritize people who are responsible, financially savvy, and share your values.
Draft Powers of Attorney for Healthcare and Financial Matters
Degree of difficulty: Easy/moderate
Why you need to do it: Who would you want to make financial or healthcare decisions for you if you were unable to do so yourself? Drafting powers of attorney can help you appoint those individuals you deem the most trustworthy and in tune with your wishes.
Know before you go: As with a will, you can use an online service to help you draft these documents or enlist an estate-planning attorney to draft them. (If you use an online service or tool, be sure to run them past an expert for review; these documents must be prepared in accordance with state law, which generally means they'll need to be printed, signed by two witnesses, and notarized.) You can name the same person on both your healthcare and financial powers of attorney or choose two individuals to fulfill these roles. While physical proximity isn't important for your financial powers of attorney assignment, it should be a consideration for your healthcare decisions; you'd like the individual to be able to get on the scene, consult with doctors, and make decisions in person if needed. It's also important to appoint individuals to serve as backups in case your first choices are unavailable for some reason. Finally, be sure to discuss your appointments with the people you expect to serve on your behalf. Let them know of the existence of these documents and where to find them. Give your financial agent the lay of the land for your financial situation and tell them where they can find important documents. (A master directory is useful here.) With your healthcare agents, share your general thoughts about your healthcare, including your views on life-sustaining care. (A living will, discussed below, can further help ensure that your wishes are carried out in relation to your healthcare.)
Create a Living Will
Degree of difficulty: Moderate
Why you need to do it: Sometimes called an advance directive, a living will enables you to document your wishes for your own end-of-life care, in case you are no longer able to participate in your own healthcare decisions.
Know before you go: Think through your wishes for end-of-life care. What's your attitude toward resuscitation, feeding tubes, mechanical ventilation, and other life-extending measures? Your living will communicate your basic views on these healthcare treatments, but be sure to have a more nuanced discussion with your agent for healthcare (as outlined on your healthcare powers of attorney), too.
Create a Trust (if needed)
Degree of difficulty: Difficult
Why you need to do it: Trusts, like estate planning, might seem at first blush to be appropriate only for the very wealthy. But they can be the way to go in several situations--for example, if you have a loved one with special needs, for whom inheriting assets outright could jeopardize eligibility for government-provided benefits. Trusts can also be appropriate if the person inheriting the assets may not be able to manage the money prudently on his or her own--loved ones with addiction or a history of financial mismanagement, for example.
Know before you go: Unlike some of the other estate-plan mechanisms discussed above, where an online resource may be able to help you achieve your goals with less cost, trusts fall squarely in the domain of a qualified estate-planning attorney. Such an individual can help you determine whether a trust is appropriate in your situation and draft documents that comport with your goals.