Estate planning checklist

Help ensure your assets are distributed per your wishes.

Article published: July 18, 2024

One of the most important aspects of financial planning is estate planning.  Unfortunately, it is often left undone. When meeting with new clients, we frequently discover they have no estate plan or instructions in place for the disposition of their assets or guardianship of their minor children. That is why we created this estate planning checklist.

1. Consult with your financial advisor and your estate planning attorney

The work of your financial advisor and your estate attorney can overlap and should be done in tandem.

The financial advisor helps you develop a comprehensive financial plan that can cover things such as college funding, life insurance, retirement savings, estate planning and more. He or she can tell you what estate planning tools you might need to consider – a will, durable Power of Attorney, living will, living trust – and then an attorney can help you decide on those documents and provide them.

It is important to work together because just having, for example, a signed living trust from your attorney may not be enough. You also need to title the assets, such as brokerage accounts, homes, cars, etc., into the trust.

2. At a minimum, create a will

A will is an essential part of any estate plan. It is the primary document that allows your assets to be transferred upon death as you instructed.

If you do not have a will, the state in which you live will provide one for you. They call this “dying intestate,” which means you give up the opportunity to distribute your assets as you want; instead, the state decides for you. State laws vary, but your assets may not pass to your spouse and children.

If you already have a will, you should add reviewing and updating your will to your estate plan checklist.

3. Name a guardian for young children

If you have young children, discuss with your spouse who will raise them and manage your assets for their care, benefit and welfare if something were to happen to you both. This helps ensure someone you trust will make those decisions, rather than a judge in probate court.

Ironically, being unable to choose a guardian is one of the most common reasons parents of young children give for putting off writing a will. There are several factors to consider when choosing a guardian for your kids, but don’t let that intimidate you from making this important decision.

The law can require that you name a guardian for the money as a separate act from naming a guardian for the children. It is often recommended that the financial trustee or custodian be different from the guardian of the children. By having a third party control the assets, there is additional oversight that can help ensure the assets are used for the benefit and welfare of the children.

We recommend having an honest conversation with the intended guardian before you formalize the paperwork so that they agree to the responsibility in advance. Provide this person (or couple, if married) with a copy of your current will and all trust/custodial documents.

4. Medical directive and power of attorney

Wills aren’t enough; you also need a medical directive and a durable Power of Attorney. These documents apply if you become disabled and cannot make decisions on your own. If you’re in the hospital, someone needs to pay your monthly bills – and the Power of Attorney lets someone you choose do that for you.

If your condition is so severe that you can be kept alive only by artificial means, or if you need an operation but cannot make that decision because you are incapacitated, your medical directive allows another person of your choice to act on your behalf, honoring your preferences.

5. Consider a revocable living trust

Without proper planning, your heirs may have to contend with probate court. And if you own real estate in several states, your heirs will have to deal with probate in each state. The process involves extensive time delays and legal fees. Fortunately, you can help avoid all this with a revocable living trust.

6. Talk to your family

You’ll want to let your children know where you keep your will, medical directive and trust documents. And make sure everyone knows whom you’ve named as your executor or trustee.

If you’re not sure where to start on your estate planning checklist, speak with one of our financial advisors. He or she can help determine what may be needed for your individual situation and portfolio of assets. We also recommend coupling that with a meeting with an estate attorney to create a comprehensive estate plan.

The information regarding estate planning should not be construed as tax or legal advice and is for general informational purposes only.