Estate planning can be a complex beast. To make sure your client’s estate is distributed effectively and painlessly when they die, you need a wide range of documents.
These documents include things like financial information — tax returns, bank statements — estate planning provisions — trusts, wills and beneficiary designations — and power of attorney declarations.
First things first, you need a full inventory of your client’s estate
This can include:
Personal possessions: All physical objects your clients own are part of their estate.
When helping your client to make an estate plan, make sure there’s a full inventory of things they own. In particular, make sure to include valuable possessions like jewelry or electronics.
Vehicles: Cars, motorcycles, bicycles, boats — all the vehicles your client owns are part of their estate.
Finances: Think about things like:
- Bank accounts
- Savings accounts
- Retirement accounts
- Any debts or interest owed
- Investments: Such as real estate, stocks, bonds, business equity, etc.
Intellectual property: Even abstract things your client owns are part of their estate and can have significant value. Think about:
Digital assets: “Digital estate planning” is increasingly important — online accounts can have both financial and sentimental value. Think about:
- Social media accounts
- Email addresses and accounts
- Cloud storage that might contain photos or videos
- Online investment platforms
- Domain names
You may want to include an estate inventory in your list of introductory questions for new clients.
For big-ticket assets, your clients should have proof-of-ownership documentation
Proof-of-ownership documents can make the probate process much smoother in case of any challenges to the will.
In particular, this should include things like:
- Real estate deeds
- Vehicle ownership documents
- Investment account statements
- Pension records
Financial documents: make sure you have a clear picture of your clients’ money
Having a clear, documented picture of your client’s finances is vital to effective estate planning. This should include things like:
- Tax returns
- Bank statements
- Insurance documents
- Investments — GIAs, ETFs, mutual funds, stocks and shares
- Retirement accounts — pensions, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs
- Digital assets — cryptocurrencies, credit rewards etc.
Business interests and succession plans
If your client owns a business, you need a clear sense of their:
- Ownership stakes
- Operational responsibilities
- Relationship with other owners
Getting this clearly documented and evidenced can make things run smoother when the estate is executed.
Debts are important, too
When your client’s will goes through probate, their creditors can make a claim against their estate.
To plan your client’s estate properly, you should have a clear sense of their debts so that you can help them minimize their obligations to creditors.
Accounting for real creditors also protects your client’s estate from fraudulent creditors.
Your client’s debts may include:
- Rent, mortgage, or insurance on their home
- Unpaid bills
- Credit card debt
- Medical debt
- Other payments needed to protect the estate assets
By understanding your client’s debts, you can help them plan to minimize those debts while they’re alive to protect the inheritance of their beneficiaries.
With a strong sense of your client’s overall estate and finances, you can move on to specialized estate planning provisions.
As part of their estate plan, your client needs to name:
Executor(s): this is the person (or people) responsible for distributing the estate after your client’s death.
Trustee(s): the person (or people, or organization) responsible for managing any trusts the client may have.
Guardian(s): If your client has minor children, they may want to appoint a legal guardian to take care of them in case of their death.
By creating a trust, your client can leave specific assets to specific beneficiaries.
Trusts have two major advantages:
- Assets placed in a trust don’t go through probate
- The assets in a trust can be distributed according to specific instructions (for example, to pay out X amount of money per month, or to be used only for a child’s college education)
There are many different kinds of trust.
Your client’s will gives instructions for the distribution of those assets that haven’t been placed in a trust.
The three main types of will are:
Simple will: A “simple will” is what people usually mean when they talk about a will.
It sets out how your client’s estate should be dealt with after their death.
Testamentary trust: A testamentary trust is a trust that’s created when the testator dies.
The will sets out which assets should go in the trust, the beneficiaries of the trust, and any other conditions.
Joint will: A joint will is one your client signs with another person — usually their spouse. The joint will then applies to both of them.
Joint wills have a significant drawback: they can’t be changed after one of the testators dies, so they’re quite uncommon, and not usually recommended.
Beneficiary designations allow your client to leave specific financial instruments to specific beneficiaries.
There are two kinds of beneficiary designation: “transfer-on-death (TOD)” — which applies to things like stocks and bonds — and “payable-on-death (POD)” — which applies to things like bank accounts.
Like trusts, beneficiary designations help your client’s assets avoid probate.
Your client can specify a beneficiary for lots of different assets, including:
- Life insurance policies
- Bank accounts
- Investment accounts
- Retirement plans
Tangible personal property memos
If your client wants to leave a particular item to somebody — say, jewelry, or family heirlooms with sentimental value — it’s worth creating a “tangible personal property memo”.
This document allows your client to name a specific beneficiary for a specific item.
Not all states recognize tangible personal property memos as legally binding.
Power of Attorney
A Power of Attorney allows trusted individuals to manage your client’s financial affairs should you become incapacitated. This document is especially crucial if your client owns property or has significant investments that require specialized management.
There are two kinds of power of attorney: financial and medical.
Financial power of attorney allows someone else to make financial decisions on behalf of your client if they’re not able to.
Medical power of attorney allows someone else to make medical decisions on behalf of your client if they’re not able to.
Advance healthcare Directives
Clients should also have advance healthcare directives in case they’re physically incapacitated.
Advance healthcare directives are normally made up of two documents: a medical power of attorney and a living will, which specifies what health care interventions your client wishes to receive (or not receive) in end-of-life situations.
Documented funeral arrangements
While not legally binding as a contractual obligation like the other listed documents, recording funeral arrangements can make things easier for your client’s family — many people like to include funeral arrangements in their will.
Build your client’s estate plans with Snug
With Snug, you can create, update and control your clients’ estate planning documents with ease.