Your Estate Planning Checklist: How to Create a Financially Sound Estate Plan

From power of attorney to wills and trusts — here's how to prepare for end-of-life care and estate taxes.

Like any other strategies for the future — college savings, insurance or retirement accounts — estate planning is a critical part of life planning. Estate plans are made up of many parts, including wills and trusts, as well as any additional documents or information that will help beneficiaries carry out the requests of the benefactor.

In case you need assistance down the road, make sure your needs are met by understanding the steps to plan your finances — and taking those steps while you’re healthy and of sound mind. The following estate planning checklist will help you kick-start building a solid estate plan.

Read: How Much Money Do I Need to Retire?

1. Designate a Power of Attorney

A power of attorney allows you to name someone you trust to make financial and legal decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself. For instance, if you want your spouse to have power of attorney, you can legally designate him to have decision-making ability.

Without a power of attorney, your spouse will have limited authority over the property you own together. If you don’t have a power of attorney, your family members will have to go to court to have someone appointed to manage your finances, according to John Sweeney, executive vice president of retirement and investing strategies at Fidelity Investments.

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2. Appoint a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

A durable power of attorney, or healthcare power of attorney, lets you name someone to make medical decisions and adjustments to your end-of-life care plan for you if you’re unable to make them yourself. Depending on the state you live in, there might be limitations on who you can designate as your healthcare agent. You might not be allowed to appoint your doctor, for example.

As you figure out your power of attorney and durable power of attorney, consider consulting an elder law attorney who can help you figure out details how to fund a nursing home or what to do if you’ve outlived your retirement funds. Such an attorney can help you navigate elder law, which is specifically designed to address the needs of senior citizens.

3. Draft a Living Will

Your living will outlines the medical care you would want if you become unable to make your own healthcare decisions. For example, you can specify whether you would want to be kept alive on life support, and for how long.

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Even after you make a will, be sure to check with your state to find out if the living will and healthcare power of attorney is combined into a single advance healthcare directive document.

4. Write Out Your Will

Writing a will is your first step to ensuring that your wishes are carried out. In a will, you can specify who should receive your assets and who will be your children’s guardian. Be aware, though, that a will won’t direct where all your property and money goes.

For example, money in retirement and pension plans or proceeds from life insurance policies go to the beneficiaries you’ve named for those accounts. You also can’t use your will to leave property you hold in joint tenancy or property you’ve transferred to a living trust.

Read: 5 Things People Forget to Include in Their Will

5. Draft a Living Trust

The key benefit of a trust is that it allows you to transfer property to your heirs without the probate process, which can be lengthy, expensive and public. If you have just a will, any property that’s only in your name at your time of death will go through probate court to be distributed. But you transfer your assets to a living trust before your death, those assets can go directly to your family.

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According to Sweeney, a trust is also beneficial if you want to specify when and how your heirs will receive assets, especially if your children are minors when you die. For example, a trust can allow you to dole out assets to heirs over a period of time or in one lump sum.

“You can take care of more what-ifs with a trust than with a will,” said Danielle Mayoras, an estate-planning attorney and co-author of “Trial & Heirs.” For a trust to be effective, however, you have to go through the process of actually transferring your assets to it, which can take a lot of time and paperwork. You’ll need to weigh the pros and cons to decide whether a trust is right for you, Mayoras said.

6. Write Funeral or Memorial Instructions

You shouldn’t include your final funeral and burial wishes in your will because wills often aren’t opened and read until weeks after death. You need to specify in a separate document what sort of memorial service you want and whether you want to be buried or cremated.

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Be sure that your friends and family are aware of your wishes, and give them copies of this document or tell them where to find it. Also, if you have a deed to a cemetery plot, make sure your family knows where it is, Sweeney said.

7. Create a List of Accounts and Documents

Create a list of your financial accounts, insurance policies and the contact information for any professionals you work with, such as attorneys, accountants, brokers and financial planners. You also need to make copies of your estate planning documents, mortgage or deed to your house, and titles to cars and other property.

Keep your list and documents in a secure place — such as in a home safe or safety deposit box — and let family members know where they can access your information if something happens to you. “It doesn’t do anyone good if they can’t find your documents,” said Mayoras.

Read: What to Do If You Become the Executor of Your Parent’s Will

8. Create a Care Plan for Your Pet

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Choosing a beneficiary for your pet is an important decision and one you’ll want to discuss with the person you feel is the best fit. If you don’t want your pet to go to a no-kill shelter or facility, it’s a good idea to choose back-up beneficiaries in case the first choice is unable to take on the responsibility when the time comes.

If you’re confident that the person you choose will love and care for your pet as you do, then you might not need a detailed trust. However, if you want to have more control over the care of your pet and how the money you leave for that care is spent, then a detailed trust could be a smart move. A trust allows you to spell out your wishes in detail, from what kind of food your pet gets to the type of healthcare it receives.

9. Sort Out Your Social Media Accounts and Digital Assets

In today’s digital world, you also have to figure out what will happen, after you’ve died, to your digital music library and social media profiles for websites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The answer for what to do with your social media accounts and digital assets isn’t black and white. Because of various laws, like the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, it might be illegal to use your mom’s password, for example, to log into her email to retrieve bills or other important data.

Because the terms of use vary from one digital service provider to the next, it’s important to understand the terms of each and prepare accordingly. For example, several years ago, Google launched an optional inactive account manager feature which notifies the contact person you’ve designated after your account has been inactive for a certain period of time. Terms and laws change often, so stay informed about any updates that could affect your account and your estate plan.

10. Review the Plan Yearly

Creating a comprehensive estate plan is a major undertaking and one that most people are happy to finish. But an estate plan isn’t something you work on once and never look at again. As circumstances and laws around estate taxes and other issues change, it’s important to review your plan at least once each year to ensure your plans will still work.

A significant example of how updated laws can affect your plan is the federal estate-tax exemption changes. The federal estate-tax exemption is the legally allowed amount that can be bequeathed to non-spousal beneficiaries; in 2015 that amount jumped to $5.4 million, more than three times what was previously allowed in 2005.

Cameron Huddleston contributed to the reporting for this article.

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About the Author

Natalie Campisi

Natalie Campisi is a Los Angeles-based writer and producer with more than 17 years of experience. She started her career as a journalist, reporting for dailies, the Associated Press and on Capitol Hill. She’s produced podcasts, commercials and online video content for everyone from tech startups to chocolatiers.

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Your Estate Planning Checklist: How to Create a Financially Sound Estate Plan
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