When you pass away, it’s important to have provisions in place that allow your family and friends to receive your money and possessions. That’s where good estate planning comes in. To ensure your loved ones receive your assets you’ll need to add a few things to your checklist.
Your estate plan starts with a catalog of your tangible and intangible possessions.
Once you’ve created your inventory you’ll need to estimate the value of each item, using appraisals, financial account statements, and other sources.
A power of attorney designates someone to manage your financial affairs if you’re medically unable to do so. Your designated agent can act on your behalf in legal and financial situations when you can’t. This includes accessing and managing your assets, as well as paying your bills and taxes. Without a power of attorney, a court may decide what happens to your estate if you are found incapable of managing it.
A trust allows you to designate portions of your estate to a trustee while you’re alive. Most trusts cover a specific asset, such as a piece of property, rather than your entire estate. A trust is often set aside for underage beneficiaries, who can only claim it when they are old enough to manage assets.
A will ensures your money and property are distributed to beneficiaries according to your wishes. Make sure the wording in your will is consistent with the way you’ve allocated assets in other documentation, such as insurance policies or retirement accounts, to prevent it being contested. Without a will, your estate will be left in the hands of state officials. You can have a lawyer draft a will or you can prepare a valid one yourself, but you should have the document witnessed by two adults to prevent challenges to it. Any person may act as a witness to your will, but you should choose people who are not beneficiaries and have no stake in your choices. In some states, a will must also be notarized.
A will or trust may include a guardianship clause, but if yours does not, you need to make sure you’ve selected a person to take care of your children should you pass away. Consider a guardian who has similar views to your own, has the finances to take care of your kids, and is willing to raise them. A backup guardian should also be named. Be sure to document how you want your children raised and cared for. Without a guardian designation, a court may rule that your children be taken in by someone you would not approve of.
Like wills, trusts, and power of attorney, if you don’t name a beneficiary, or the beneficiary is under age or dead, a court will likely decide what happens to your estate. People tend to forget who they’ve named on policies and accounts. Those beneficiary designations can often supersede what’s in a will. Don’t let your money and assets go to the wrong person. Make sure your beneficiary section is always filled out and name backup beneficiaries in case your primary beneficiary dies before you. Be sure to check your retirement and insurance accounts and update them if anything happens to the beneficiaries named.
A letter of intent is a document of instructions for your executor or beneficiary. Letters of intent can provide funeral details, special requests, or directions for a particular asset after you die. This document is not considered a valid legal document, but it does help a judge understand your intentions, which will aid in the distribution of your assets.
To ensure your estate plan is in good shape, it’s a good idea to talk to a financial professional1, attorney and/or estate tax professional who can help make sure you’re on the right path, help you navigate state regulations and inheritance taxes, and even work with you to create a sound estate plan.
1. The term financial professional is not intended to imply engagement in an advisory business in which compensation is not related to sales. Financial professionals that are insurance licensed will be paid a commission on the sale of an insurance product.