Estate Planning Forms/Documents

Regardless of your age, family status, or financial well-being, if you have a bank account, investments, a car, a home, or any other type of property, then you have an estate. An estate plan is a set of instructions describing how you want the assets that you have accumulated over your lifetime to be distributed when you pass away.

If you have a spouse, minor children, or other dependents, having an estate plan is critical to preserving their inheritance and providing for their future income needs. If you pass away without an estate plan in place, your assets will be distributed according to preset state guidelines that may not align with your wishes.

Your estate plan should address the following tasks:

  • Completing a Last Will & Testament - a Will expresses your wishes regarding the distribution of your wealth and care for your minor children.
  • Naming Beneficiaries - this involves ensuring that family members, loved ones, and charitable causes are named directly on life insurance, retirement plans, and other Pay-On-Death or Transfer-On-Death accounts. This can save on the time it takes for the proceeds of these accounts to be distributed to your heirs and beneficiaries.
  • Minimizing Final Taxes - with proper planning, your final tax bill can be significantly reduced or even eliminated, meaning that more money can go to where you want it to go.
  • Naming an Executor or Trustee - this is the individual or individuals that you appoint to administer your estate and distribute your assets according to your wishes.
  • Creating a Trust - this involves drafting a Trust to communicate your instructions for the ongoing management of all or part of your assets, and to allow as much of those assets to avoid probate and pass on directly to your beneficiaries.
  • Wealth Preservation – for some families, the transfer of considerable wealth to the next generation is accompanied by questions concerning how equipped some heirs are to properly manage their inherited wealth. Proper estate planning can help you address these concerns. Limitations, restrictions, and conditions can be placed on the distribution of your wealth to protect it from being squandered as a result of poor decisions, bad habits, irresponsibility, divorce, and creditors.

How to Start Estate Planning

To start an estate plan, simply follow these seven steps. Each one should be taken with the assistance of a knowledgeable and experienced estate planning attorney, to ensure the validity and proper execution of each document:

  1. Identify Your Estate Planning Goals

    Identifying your estate planning goals is the first step in the estate planning process. Your aim should be to identify the primary objectives that will dictate the development and implementation of your comprehensive estate plan. Some of the most common estate planning goals are:

    • Probate avoidance;
    • The smooth transfer of wealth from one generation to the next;
    • Incapacity planning;
    • Providing for minor children and special needs loved ones;
    • Business succession planning; and
    • Tax saving.
  2. Inventory Your Assets

    Your estate plan should start with a thorough inventory of all of your assets including:

    • Real estate;
    • Bank accounts;
    • Stocks, bonds, and other securities;
    • Personal property, like cars, jewelry, etc.; and
    • Life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and annuities.
  3. Create a Will or Trust

    Both will allow you to spell out how you want your property distributed after you pass away, and to appoint someone to administer the distribution of your estate. A Will also allows you to appoint a guardian for your minor children, but must be probated. With a Trust, your assets can bypass probate and your affairs can stay private.

  4. Fill Out Beneficiary Designation Forms

    Decide who you want to receive the proceeds from your bank accounts, retirement funds, and life insurance policies. The beneficiary designation forms on these accounts supersede your Will. So, it is very important that they are filled out correctly and kept up-to-date.

  5. Create Powers of Attorney

    Choose someone to act on your behalf when you are unable to act due to injury or illness. You can give a General Durable Power of Attorney to one party to act as your agent for your financial affairs, and a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care to another party to make medical decisions on your behalf, or you can authorize the same person to do both.

  6. Create a Living Will

    This document expresses your preferences for the types of medical treatment you want or don't want to receive during emergencies and end-of-life circumstances, including life support, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, comfort care, etc. A Living Will plus a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care creates what is called an Advance Health Care Directive, which is very helpful for avoiding family conflicts and confusion.

  7. Review & Update Your Estate Planning Documents

    Change is a constant in life. So, you can't just set your estate plan and forget it. Make sure to review and update your estate planning documents frequently, at least every couple of years, and after every major life event, such as a death or birth in your family, marriage or divorce, or any significant change in the make-up of your estate.

Other Estate Planning Documents

In addition to the essential estate planning documents mentioned above, you may also want to discuss your need for the following documents with your estate planning attorney:

  • A HIPAA Release
  • A DNR (Do Not Resuscitate Order)
  • Testamentary Trust Provisions (to be included in your Will)
  • Emergency Guardians for Minors Authorization
  • Organ Donation Authorization
  • Transfer on Death Deeds
  • A Buy-Sell Agreement (for business succession planning)

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you get all the essential estate planning documents in place, and ensure that your estate plan will work when and where you need it to work.