Now that you have organized your important documents, it's time to learn about estate planning. There are numerous aspects to the process of developing this plan, some of which require executing legal documents and others that require thought to make the right decisions.
At the very least, you should have a will which dispurses your assets upon your death, a living will which lists your medical care wishes, a durable power of attorney that designates someone to act on your behalf, and a health-care proxy (medical directive) to make health-care decisions if you are unable to.
This page gives a brief summary of the different aspects that comprise or should be considered in developing your estate plan. Additional information is available via the links in the left column.
A (death) will
This type of will is a legal document that tells everyone, including the court and your heirs, how you want your assets distributed, who will care for any minor children, and who will act as executor for your estate. (more information)
Choosing a guardian
If you have minor children, as part of creating your will, you will name a legal guardian to care for your children should you pass away. (more information)
A living will
This document is used to state your desires regarding the treatment you will receive if you have a terminal illness and are expected to die relatively soon, or are permanently unconscious. Health care providers will consider your living will if you are no longer able to make and communicate your own decisions. The living will is considered one aspect of the medical directive. (more information)
Durable power of attorney for finances
This document gives the person you appoint legal power to manage your financial assets on your behalf if you are unable. They can write checks and pay bills, and assure that your family is taken care of financially when necessary. The need for such a successor trustee is often a sudden one, so make sure that he or she has a copy of your instructions. (more information)
This document appoints one or more individuals to make health decisions for you in case you are unable to, based on your desires. A common wish is whether or not, or for how long or under what circumstances, someone wishes to remain on life support, or have heroic measures taken to sustain their life even when it might be hopeless. This document gives your appointees the information that they will need to make that decision for you. It also advises the hospital of your wishes, so it is important that the person you appont keep a copy of your health directive. (more information)
As part of your plan, you may wish to leave some of your assets to one or more charities. As part of your will or trust document, you will designate which charties are to receive what assets, and sometimes how they are supposed to be used. (more information)
Rather than save all your money until you pass away, you are entitled to help people now by gifting up to $12,000 each year to as many individuals as you wish without having to pay gift tax. For couples, this maximum is $24,000 per person per year. (more information)
Unlike a will, trusts are designed to distribute your assets while avoiding estate taxes. This is permissible because the assets are no longer in your name, they are owned by the trust. The trustee that you designate decides whether and when any money can be taken from the trust and dispersed to the specified beneficiary. This is usually done within certain parameters set by your will or trust instrument. (more information)
If you have specific requests concerning your burial and funeral, you may write these instructions in a letter and designate a person to carry out these wishes. You would then give them a copy of this letter, and keep a copy with your will. (more information)
Many items in your estate, such as your life insurance, should have a named beneficiary. That is the person who will receive the proceeds of that asset when you die. You should review each of these documents to make sure that you are satisfied with the named beneficiaries. Also important are many items that could be converted to cash, such as stocks, bonds, CDs and mutual funds, but their dispersal will be held up in probate unless you name a beneficiary for each item before you die. For these items, you need to contact the respective bank, brokerage or mutual fund company and request a TOD (transfer on death) form that will allow you to name the person or persons you want each asset to go to when you die. Unfortunately, if you live in Texas, Louisianna, New York or North Carolina, you will not be able to use a TOD. (more information)
This is the person you designate to settle your estate after your passing. The executor carries the important responsibility of taking care of your affairs and wrapping up the estate in an orderly fashion. They will probate your will, access your safety-deposit box, settle all debts and claim all benefits. (more information)
Step Three - Inventory your assets