Estate planning is a fact of life that many of us put off for as long as possible. Creating an estate plan is daunting, and many of us don’t want to think of the implications of what creating one can mean. However, as adults, we must take the time to create a plan that safeguards our estate and loved ones.
Depending on our stage of life, our estate plan can be simple or complex. Additionally, things change throughout our lifetime. Marriages, divorces, childbirth, adoption, or the death of a loved one are all things that can affect our estate plans. Regardless of our age and stage of life, the documents we should create to effectively plan for the disposition of our estate remain the same.
5 Legal Documents Needed for an Estate Plan
The legal documents necessary for a comprehensive estate plan are the ones that will best address how your assets will be distributed when you pass away. The most necessary document is your last will and testament. However, there are others that are also essential, depending on your stage of life.
As you age, your goals for your estate plan will change. Life events affect how you create your documents initially. You will need to update those documents to reflect the changes in your life. You should have five documents in a comprehensive estate plan, no matter your age, marital status, or net worth.
- A Will
The document that everyone thinks of when they think of estate planning is a last will and testament. A will is simply the starting point and foundation of a good estate plan. It tells your family and friends how you want your assets distributed when you pass away.
Your will documents all of your assets. It also documents exactly who within your circle should receive which items. The people set to inherit from you are known as your beneficiaries. Typically, that’s your spouse, children, grandchildren, and other loved ones.
Having a will in place ensures that your assets are divided the way you would wish if anything happens to you. It can also include instructions for who you want to care for children or pets.
- Designation of Beneficiaries
Beneficiary designation documents aren’t typically included in estate planning documents. However, these documents are critical to the estate planning process. Any time you set up accounts that affect your financial life, you are usually asked to name beneficiaries to those accounts.
For example, when you purchase a life insurance policy, you can name the beneficiary of the policy. Doing this elects to pass this asset directly to that beneficiary. It won’t be included in the estate, and it will be excluded from a probate process.
The alternative to naming the beneficiary you want to get the access to the account is to bequeath it to your estate. If you choose this route, the account will pass into a trust associated with your estate. The trust will distribute your assets at a later time.
- Health Care Proxy
When we’re young, we often think nothing can happen to us, that we’re invincible. However, viewing ourselves in this manner is risky because it can lead us to ignore the necessity for long-term planning.
Every adult must have an advance directive to provide for health care emergencies. One part of that advance directive is a health care proxy. Having a health care proxy in place allows you to name the person you trust to make medical decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself. If you’re incapacitated for any reason, this person will act on your behalf, so it is crucial to communicate your wishes to them.
- Living Will
The other part of an advance directive is a living will. A living will works in conjunction with your health care proxy to ensure that your wishes regarding medical care will be followed if you ever become incapacitated.
Your living will tells your health care proxy what you want to have happen if anything happens to you. Do you want heroic efforts used to keep you alive? How do you feel about dialysis or ventilators? If you spell out your wishes in your living will, your health care proxy and other family members will have no question regarding your wishes and what choices to make for you.
- Durable Power of Attorney
A durable power of attorney allows you to designate someone to make decisions regarding things you’re your finances and personal or business-related matters. It is similar to a health care proxy in that someone else of your choosing makes decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated. A traditional power of attorney expires if you are incapacitated, but a durable power of attorney doesn’t. With a durable power of attorney, someone you trust can keep your business going if you are unable to do so yourself.
Other Estate Planning Documents
The above five estate planning documents are necessary for a comprehensive estate plan. However, there are other documents that are recommended to include in your plan that you may have overlooked.
If you have minor children, setting up a guardianship is a must to provide for them in the future. A legal guardian will step in and care for your children if anything happens to you and you aren’t able to care for them yourself. You can also provide for guardianship of a parent or a special needs person.
When a guardian takes over, they become responsible for providing all the needs of the person they are caring for. These needs include physical needs like food and shelter. Ideally, though, this person will also help to provide for their emotional and intellectual needs.
- A Trust
Another optional document to implement into your estate plan is a trust. A trust allows someone else, a trustee, to manage your assets. The assets within the trust are not considered part of the estate. This keeps assets away from the probate process.
The trustee can distribute assets held in the trust directly to beneficiaries as long as the terms of the trust provide for that action. With a trust, you can set up the conditions that apply to the distribution of the assets held in trust. Creating a trust essentially gives you control over your assets even after you are no longer alive.
Don’t Wait too Late to Create Your Estate Plan
Many people think that creating an estate plan is a long, difficult process. It can be, but the more prepared you are, the easier the process can be. The five documents we mentioned are those that are key to having a comprehensive plan that protects your assets and provides for the future of your loved ones.