Estate planning should be a part of anyone’s long term goals for managing their estate and providing for their family. Estate plans will look different depending upon the complexity of your estate and your wishes. These plans can cover what you want to happen with your property, your finances, the guardianship of your minor children or dependent adult children, and the extent to which you want to avoid taxes and probate.
A will can cover some of these situations, but will only go into effect upon your death, whereas an estate plan is a living document that has power during your lifetime. For this reason, it’s generally advised that you have both a will and an estate plan.
The following is a step-by-step estate planning checklist you can use to start organizing your assets and making crucial decisions. Not everything will apply to you, so it’s essential you take the steps that make the most sense for you and your needs.
Step 1: Identify Goals
Identifying your long term goals is both a personal and practical decision. Some people with smaller estates and uncomplicated finances may choose to stick with a very simple estate plan. Those with property holdings, diverse investments, and minor children may choose to do a more comprehensive plan.
There also may be personal or familial factors that go into the decisions you make. If you know there are multiple members of your family who don’t get along with one another, or have different ideas about what should be done with your assets or children if you become incapitated, you will want to make a very thorough plan. If you only have one or two beneficiaries and there is no concern over future squabbles, you can probably opt for something simpler.
Step 2: Take Inventory
This step will take the longest, but is also the most important. You’ll need to account for everything in your estate and even for the average person, this is a lot.
Assets and liabilities: Inventory everything you own and list the value of your home, cars, art, antiques, jewelry, or any other physical assets. You’ll also want to itemize and document all your liabilities like mortgages, outstanding loans, or lines of credit. Your beneficiaries will be responsible for your debts as well as your assets and you want to ensure those will not create an undue burden on them.
Identify your beneficiaries: These people will be assigned in your estate plan, but they should also be named on any investment or retirement accounts, and any insurance policies. It may also be helpful to name contingent beneficiaries if your primary beneficiary dies before you do. Do some beneficiaries have special needs? If so, be sure to note these in your plan.
Identify guardians: This is the person (or couple) who will take care of your child if you die or become incapacitated. You can name both a guardian of the person and a guardian of the estate. Your guardian of the person will take care of your child’s emotional and physical needs, providing everything you would like: a home, clothing, food, education, and medical care. A guardian of the estate is only in charge of your child’s inheritance. You can name the same person to both roles if you wish.
Charitable contributions: An estate plan also allows you to name certain organizations or nonprofits to receive a portion of your assets after you die. This ensures your money goes exactly where you want it and will help avoid tax implications.
Probate: Probate is the legal process that a court undertakes after you die to distribute your assets. A comprehensive estate plan (especially paired with a living trust) can limit the impact of probate on your family and beneficiaries. Probate is often an expensive and lengthy process and can make things more complicated for your family. If you wish to avoid this, you should write up a good estate plan.
Advanced Directives: Decide who you will appoint for your medical care directives as well as financial directives.
Step 3: Visit an Estate Planning Attorney and Draft Your Plan
You don’t necessarily need to work with an estate planning attorney, but it will ensure you’ve not overlooked anything and that your plan will withstand any legal objections. If your estate is very simple, you may be able to get away with using an online estate planning tool.
An estate attorney can help you with a number of things including:
- Writing a will
- Establishing Power of Attorney
- Creating a comprehensive estate plan
- Creating a trust
- Advising on the best methods for avoiding estate and inheritance taxes as well as limiting the role of probate
The average cost of an estate planning attorney will be around $300 an hour, though this will vary depending on your location and the complexity of your estate. If you have many assets your total costs will be in the thousands, with the average total cost being $2,500 to $5,000. You will also have to pay anytime you wish to revise your plan, though that process should be more straightforward.
Step 4: Update your plan regularly
Your needs and the needs of your beneficiaries can and will change and your estate plan should reflect that. You’ll also want to update the named beneficiaries for insurance plans and investments when you update your estate plan to avoid confusion.
Additionally, you should update your plan any time your estate or assets change. If you acquire additional property or sell a part of your estate, your plan will need to change too.