It's hard to decide what will happen when you die. The process of estate planning is involved and emotionally trying, but the decisions you make can now help eliminate some of the confusion and turbulence your loved ones will face when your life ends or you become incapacitated. To help you get started, here are the top 10 documents you need when planning your estate:
- Will or Trust: Wills and trusts are the most basic guidelines when it comes to estate planning. They allow you to dictate who gets your property, including any money, real estate or other assets you own. Without one, the government gets to make these decisions for you. In this case, where your money goes depends on which state you live in, but potential beneficiaries include your spouse, children, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces or nephews and even distant relatives.
- Beneficiary Designations: This is an official statement of who will receive your property - including funds, homes and more - in the event of your death. You can choose different people for different accounts, and there's generally no fee if you decide to change them. Some of your possessions, such as insurance policies or retirement accounts, pass to a beneficiary without having to be mentioned in your will. You might remember signing a beneficiary designation form when you first opened these accounts. Make sure there are no discrepancies between these designations and the ones in your will. If two different documents list separate beneficiaries for the same property, the people listed can call their attorneys and battle for your estate in court.
- Financial Power of Attorney: Appointing an attorney-in-fact, also known as an executor, lets you choose who will be in charge of your financial affairs should you become incapacitated from an illness, injury or other cause. Their capability goes beyond deciding who gets what - they have the authority to pay expenses, collect government benefits, maintain your real estate, manage your retirement accounts and more.
- Asset Inventory: A list of all your assets helps your executor determine what to do with your property. This list should include your bank accounts, investments, real estate and even valuable personal items like jewelry or artwork. Your asset inventory should also include a list of all your online account information, including logins for your email, if necessary.
- Medical Power of Attorney: Similar to an executor, this agent has the power to make medical decisions on your behalf. Their job is to make sure the medical care you receive falls in line with your wishes. This person has the authority overrule family, friends and doctors who want to authorize treatments you don't want.
- Living Will: This document describes the type of medical care you wish to receive. This way, your family doesn't have to decide whether, for example, you'd prefer to stay on a ventilator or have your organs donated. It can stand as a reference for your medical power of attorney or anyone who needs to make such decisions for you.
- HIPAA Authorization: The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prevents doctors from releasing certain medical records without permission to maintain the patient's privacy and safety. Unfortunately, this can cause issues when it comes to determining your medical care. Most medical power of attorney forms have a HIPAA release included, but you can sign a separate one if you want to grant access to other family members.
- Guardianship Designations: If you have children under 18, or if kids are a part of your future plan, you want to have some control over what happens to them should you die or become incapacitated. You also want to choose who cares for you in the latter situation. Designate at least one potential guardian, although it's a good idea to have a backup as well. Choose someone whose values align with yours, has the financial capacity to raise children and would generally appreciate having kids of their own. Make sure to discuss potential guardianship with this person beforehand to make sure they're prepared to accept this responsibility. If the person is on board, the two of you should come to an agreement about how they will act as a guardian. Keep in mind that, by not designating a person, the state will choose who looks after you or you children. States have varying rules as to who is automatically granted guardianship, so you or your family could end up with a less-desirable family member or become wards of the state.
- Letter of Intent: This isn't a legal document, but it gives your child's future guardians some direction. Your letter of intent should include anything you'd want a caregiver to know: how you'd like your child to be raised and educated, medical conditions, disabilities and what sort of care you'd like for the child the event of a life-threatening condition. It also lays out individual quirks like your child's likes and dislikes or their strengths and weaknesses.
- List of Contacts: Finally, having a list of contacts will make the lives of everyone designated to manage your estate much easier. You should of course include the essentials - doctors, lawyers, employers, etc. - but it's also a good idea to add the minor details like utility companies, daycare providers, even the neighbor's son who mows your lawn.
Estate planning is an involved process. But after getting through everything, you can rest assured your affairs will be settled appropriately and your loved ones will be cared for.