What will happen to you and your loved ones once you become incapacitated or pass away? Estate planning involves anticipating and organizing the management of your estate and what will happen to it in such a scenario. This often involves minimizing taxes where possible, deciding who will handle your financial or medical matters, and selecting who will be the heirs to your assets.
“If estate planning was once considered something that only the wealthy needed, nowadays many middle-class families need to plan for when something happens to a family’s breadwinner (or breadwinners),” said Donna Fuscaldo, personal finance reporter and Investopedia contributor.
Here is an estate planning checklist and worksheet you can use as a reference for gathering information. This will help you prepare for meeting with your attorney and planning your estate.
1. Take Inventory of Your Estate
Regardless of how modest it is, all that you own is your estate. Figuring out exactly what you own is step one in protecting it and making sure it’s handled as you want it to be once you’re gone.
As soon as you’ve hired an estate planning lawyer, you’ll need to complete an inventory so your lawyer can assess the estate and start developing the appropriate plan for your needs. Here is a list of items to include:
- Assets: Take stock of physical assets such as your house, car, artwork, and jewelry and list their value. Next, consider business assets, real estate, and investments. Think about who you want these to go to. Your attorney will help you decide which items should be left to friends, family, or charity in terms of legality and tax.
- Insurance Policies: Get a list together of any current insurance policies you have, detailing any death benefits or cash values. Include existing trusts, wills, or powers of attorney. The more detailed information you can include, the better.
- Account Statements: Get recent statements from retirement accounts, brokerage accounts, and all bank accounts including checking and savings. Also include any mortgages, debt, or lines of credit.
Include the contents and location of any safes or safety deposit boxes you own. In addition, you’ll want to think about who you’ll want to handle any medical decisions on your behalf in case you become incapacitated.
2. Draft the Plan
Get ready for your meeting with an estate planning professional by knowing the answers to these questions about the way your affairs should be settled.
- Who would you like to inherit your (physical and investment) assets?
- Who should be in charge of your finances in case you’re incapacitated?
- Who do you want to care for any minor children you leave behind?
- How much money is necessary for their education and care?
- Who would you like to handle the distribution of your assets?
Many people select the relative closest to them for this role, such as their spouse, which makes sense as that person is likely to be most affected financially. But make sure you have a backup executor selected, as well (preferably someone you know with an accounting background or law degree). This is important in case your spouse declines to handle the estate or passes on at the same time as you.
3. Taking Action on Your Estate Plan
As soon as you’re prepared, meet your attorney so they can draft your will, trust documents (if you need them), and financial and medical powers of attorney. First figure out whether you need a trust. If so, follow these steps:
- Fund your trust right away, if you decide to set one up. Without doing this, the agreement will not take effect, meaning that your assets may not go to the heirs you’ve selected.
- If you decide to set up a trust, review and update your investment account beneficiaries if necessary.
- Ensure that the assets to be included in your trust have been retitled as needed and that you hold onto copies of related documents.
A simple will may be enough for some, while a trust could be necessary for those with more complicated circumstances. To find out which applies to you, do your research and don’t be afraid to ask your attorney questions.
4. Keep Your Plan Updated
Creating a will can be stressful. So as soon as they’ve made their estate plan, most are tempted to put it away and stop thinking about it. But you’ll need to look it over fairly often in order to keep it relevant.
“Any time you experience a significant change in your life, there’s the likelihood that your estate plan will be affected,” said Robert Kulas, an experienced estate planning lawyer in Florida. “So, when change happens, check with your estate planning attorney and take the recommended action.”
Here are some examples of reasons to update your estate plan:
State Law Changes: The law is always changing. For this reason, you must check periodically to see whether any new laws have gone into effect that could affect your estate plan and will. In addition, if you move out of state, check that your previous estate planning documents are still valid as each state will likely have different requirements.
Retirement Distributions: If you have a 401(k), IRA, or any other plan that calls for taking distributions when you turn 70 ½, make sure to meet with your attorney before you reach this age. You will need to review and update your plan as the beneficiary you’ve chosen will effect on these distributions.
You’ll also want to review it if you’ve met someone you want to include in your plan, if the individuals in your will are deceased, or if you’ve adopted a child or had a baby. Any change in trustees, representatives, or guardians calls for an update, or when your children are no longer minors. Coming into assets or cash and getting married or divorced also qualify as good reasons to look over your will again.
There’s no telling when life will change. For this reason, you need to regularly review and update your estate plan to keep up with shifts in the law or your situation.
Call our Estate team at (480)467-4325 to discuss your case today.