8 Estate-Planning Documents You Need Right Now

Estate Planning Documents You Need Right Now

By Marilyn Lewis

Do you want to be remembered fondly by loved ones? Then tackle your estate-planning tasks. Your heirs will bless you for not leaving a mess for them to clean up.

Many of us want to get going but don't know where to start. Following is information about eight documents that can help you get your affairs in order. If that sounds like a lot of paperwork, don't worry: You probably won't need every document.

1. Last Will and Testament

Making a will gives you the power to decide what is in the best interest of your children and pets after you're gone. It also can help you determine what is to become of possessions of financial and sentimental value. Finally, you can include any funeral provisions and instructions.

With no will, your assets will be dispersed by a probate court. Probate proceedings are public record. If you're married, each spouse should have a separate will, AARP says.

Update your will as big changes occur -- marriage, divorce, inheritance, purchase of real estate or the birth of a child. If you have moved to a new state, have your will reviewed by an attorney in the new state. You can add to or change a will in either of two ways: Make a new will or add a codicil, a supplement.

Get an attorney's help if you have substantial assets or a legally complex personal or financial situation. Use your will to name guardians for those under your care, including children and pets. Designate any assets you are leaving for their care. Remember to keep private information out of your will, as it could become a public document.

2. Revocable Living Trust

A living trust is another tool for passing assets to heirs while avoiding potentially expensive and time-consuming probate. It's "revocable" because you can change it as long as you're mentally competent.

You name a trustee, perhaps a spouse, family member or attorney, to manage your property. Unlike a will, a trust can be used to distribute property now or after your death. If you have substantial property or wealth, a trust can provide tax savings.

ElderLawAnswers explains differences between trusts and wills. Creating a trust is not a do-it-yourself project. Get an attorney's help.

3. Beneficiary Designations

When you purchase life insurance or open a retirement plan or bank account, you're asked to name a beneficiary who will inherit the proceeds. These designations are powerful; they take precedence over instructions in a will.

Keep beneficiary designation papers with your estate-planning documents. Review and update them as your life changes, and you want to name new beneficiaries.

4. Durable Power of Attorney

Choose someone to act on your behalf, financially and legally, in case you can't make decisions. Don't put off this chore. You must be legally competent to assign power of attorney. Older people, worried about relinquishing control, sometimes put off the task until they are no longer legally competent to do it.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-The durable power of attorney is the most important estate-planning instrument available.%If you have not designated someone as your power of attorney, your family's hands are tied if you become incapacitated, something that can happen to young people as well as the elderly. "For most people, the durable power of attorney is the most important estate-planning instrument available -- even more useful than a will," says ElderLawAnswers.

Some financial institutions won't accept a general power of attorney document, so ask your banking and financial institutions if they have a separate power of attorney form you must use.

ElderLawAnswers adds: "If you do not have someone you trust to appoint, it may be more appropriate to have the probate court looking over the shoulder of the person who is handling your affairs through a guardianship or conservatorship. In that case, you may execute a limited durable power of attorney simply nominating the person you want to serve as your conservator or guardian."

5. Health Care Power of Attorney and Living Will

With a health care power of attorney -- also called durable health care power of attorney -- you name someone to make medical decisions for you if you're incapacitated. This is different from the durable power of attorney for financial and legal affairs.

A living will lets you explain in advance what types of care you do and do not want, in case you can't communicate in the future. "You can use your living will to say as much or as little as you wish about the kind of health care you want to receive," says legal site Nolo. In some states, the living will and health care power of attorney forms are combined in one "advance directive" form.

These decisions require discussion and weighing of values and wishes. The American Bar Association has a free toolkit of 10 tools to help with making plans and decisions. States differ in their requirements. To obtain a form and instructions that are valid in your state, ask at a local hospital. Here are more resources from the American Bar Association, including a sample form.

6. Provision for Digital Assets

Decide what to do with your digital information, including your computer hard drive, digital photo collection, information stored in the cloud, and online accounts, like Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Twitter. Be sure to include a list of your passwords. "What Happens to Your Data When You Die" explains how to make these decisions.

7. Letter of Intent

For instructions, requests and important personal or financial information that don't belong in your will, write a letter. Use it to convey your wishes for things you hope, but don't require, to be done. For example, you may have detailed instructions about how you want your funeral or memorial service performed. No attorney is needed. The letter won't carry the legal weight of a will.

8. List of Important Documents

Make certain your family knows where to find everything you've prepared. Make a list of documents, including where each is stored. Include papers for:

  • Life insurance policies.
  • Annuities.
  • Pension or retirement accounts.
  • Bank accounts.
  • Family records.
  • Divorce records.
  • Birth and adoption certificates.
  • Real estate deeds.
  • Stocks, bonds and mutual funds.
Another item helpful for your heirs is a list of bills and accounts, including contact information and account numbers for each, so your representative can close and settle these accounts. AARP suggests using a safe at your home or business for storage. Your lawyer's office may be another possibility. It adds: "Before you decide to store the will in a bank safe deposit box, consider state and local probate law. Many laws require that a bank safe deposit box be automatically sealed upon your death. This can result in messy complications."

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