This month we’ve been sharing information about estate planning, since October is National Estate Planning Month. In this week’s blog, we present a checklist of some of the most important items that should be on your estate planning to-do list.
- Designate an executor or trustee. This is the person who will be responsible for handling your financial affairs and settling your estate. Tasks included here typically include paying outstanding bills and taxes, managing assets held in trust, and distributing assets to your heirs according to your wishes. You can name an individual as your executor (such as your spouse, adult child or close friend) or designate a corporate trustee. Your decision should be based on the size and complexity of your estate and whether you have a friend or family member who’s willing and able to assume these duties.
- Name a guardian for your children. This is a critical decision that you and your spouse should think about carefully. Your guardian should be named in your last will and testament (see below), which should also spell out his or her specific responsibilities. For example, you might want your guardian to manage assets held in trust for your minor children until the reach the age of majority.
- Inventory all of your possessions. It will be easier for your executor to distribute your assets to heirs if you create an exhaustive inventory of everything you own. This doesn’t have to include every pair of pants or shoes in your closet, but it should include all of your possessions with value (both monetary and sentimental) that you want to ensure go to the proper beneficiaries.
- Plan ownership of assets with title documents. Assets like property and vehicles can be set up so that the title is automatically transferred to a co-owner (such as your spouse) when you die. The title document should specify that ownership is held as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, tenants by the entireties, or community property.
- Make a list of charitable organizations you support. If you regularly donate money to charitable organizations or causes, you should write them down, along with your wishes for continued support after you die. This is often accomplished using some type of trust arrangement.
- Choose your financial beneficiaries. Who do you want your financial assets to go to when you die? With assets like bank and brokerage accounts, you can usually designate a beneficiary who will receive possession after you die without giving him or her current ownership rights. Such assets are referred to as pay-on-death, or POD. With real estate, vehicles and other assets with title documents, it’s referred to as transfer-on-death, or TOD.
- Create a last will and testament. This is the most basic, and usually most important, estate planning task. Unfortunately, less than half (44 percent) of adults have drafted a basic will. Last week’s blog detailed the steps involved in creating a last will and testament.
- Draft powers of attorney (POA). These are formal legal documents that designate another individual to act on your behalf in financial and healthcare matters if you are physically or mentally unable to do so yourself. The two main power of attorney documents used by most people are a financial POA and a healthcare POA. Also consider drafting a living will to accompany your healthcare POA. This document will detail how life-sustaining medical decisions should be made if you are incapacitated and can’t communicate your wishes yourself.
- Consider drafting a living trust. This can be a good idea if you have a large, complex estate and multiple beneficiaries. A revocable living trust can help you avoid probate and reduce estate taxes. You would transfer property title to the living trust but would still control and manage the property while you’re alive. When you die, your trustee will ensure that the property is transferred to your beneficiaries without having to go through probate.
- Review insurance coverage. This often isn’t thought of as part of estate planning. However, it’s important to make sure you have purchased enough life and disability insurance to provide sufficient income for surviving family members if you die or become disabled. Figure out how much income it would take for your family to continue to live their current lifestyle, including savings for your children’s college educations.
Please contact us if you have more questions about any of the items listed on this checklist or about estate planning in general.