Estate Planning 101

Estate Planning: A Straightforward Checklist

A good estate plan is crucial. Get it right, and your assets will go to the right people after you die. Get it wrong, and your family can end up in a long, expensive probate process. But planning your estate is a pretty big undertaking. It’s complex. There’s a lot of paperwork to think about, and plenty of (sometimes difficult) decisions to make.
February 4, 2024

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So let us do some of the hard work for you.

Here’s a handy estate planning checklist.

In this article:

1. Create an inventory of your estate

Your estate is everything you own. That includes the physical stuff — clothes, jewelry, furniture — the big assets — like real estate — as well as savings, investments and insurance policies.

Read more: What Counts as Part of Your Estate?

  • Personal possessions 
  • Financial accounts
  • Investments and assets
  • Intellectual property

2. Make a list of debts

When your will goes through probate, many of your creditors will be able to make a claim against your estate.

Accounting for real creditors also protects your estate from any fraudulent creditors.

Not all debts can or will be recovered during probate. Student loans, for example, are forgiven at death.

  • Mortgages
  • Home Equity Lines of Credit
  • Auto loans
  • Other loans
  • Medical debt
  • Credit card debt
  • Unpaid bills

3. Gather important documents

  • Birth certificate
  • Social security card
  • Marriage certificate
  • Divorce certificate
  • Insurance policies
  • Financial account statements (bank accounts, retirement accounts, savings accounts)
  • Titles and deeds
  • Tax returns 

4. Write your will

Your will is the document that details how you want your estate to be distributed. To make a will, you need to:

  • List personal property to pass on
  • Name beneficiaries
  • Name personal representative
  • Appoint guardian for children under 18
  • Appoint caretaker for pets
  • Detail any funeral instructions

5. Create your trust (if you need one)

A trust allows you to pass on assets to beneficiaries without those assets having to go through probate. Most assets can be put in a trust, but the process can be slightly different depending on the asset.

  • Choose which assets you want to move into the trust
  • Gather the paperwork
  • Appoint a backup trustee
  • Name your beneficiaries
  • Appoint trustees
  • Get the document signed and notarized

6. Add beneficiaries to your financial accounts

Adding a beneficiary to your financial accounts allows you to pass on those assets without them having to go through probate. This is called “transfer on death” or “TOD”.

  • Bank accounts
  • Life insurance
  • Savings accounts
  • 401(k)s
  • IRAs
  • Pensions

7. Consolidate your retirement accounts

If you’ve changed jobs, you might have multiple retirement accounts. Consolidating these into a single IRA can be an effective way to simplify your estate plan.

8. Make a “living will”

A “living will” is a set of instructions for your medical care if you become too ill to make your own decisions. Consider covering things like:

  • Resuscitation
  • Palliative care
  • Organ donation
  • Pain management

9. Create a medical power of attorney

A medical power of attorney allows someone to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re too ill to make those decisions yourself.

10. Create a financial power of attorney

A financial power of attorney allows someone to make financial decisions on your behalf if you can’t make them yourself.

11. Write a guide for your executor(s)

Estate plans can be complex. Consider writing a guide for executors to help them manage the distribution of your estate.

12. Schedule reviews for your estate planning documents

As life changes, so too does your estate plan. Schedule an annual review of your estate plan to keep things up to date and in line with your wishes.

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