Use this estate planning checklist to make sure everything is in order regarding what happens to assets and belongings (your estate) after you die, and what kind of care you want to receive should you become unable to take care of yourself or manage your own affairs.
1. List your estate assets
The best way to start estate planning is with an inventory of all the assets you need to pass to your heirs. As you make this list of assets, also mention if anything is jointly owned or jointly titled (which may be the case if you live in a community property state). Make sure you consider all of the following assets if you have them:
Real estate and vehicles (find deed and titles)
High-value assets (art, jewelry, rare coins)
Sentimental personal property
Retirement accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, pensions
Health savings accounts
Investment and brokerage accounts
Paper certificates, like a treasury bond
Life insurance policies
Digital assets (account emails and passwords)
Liabilities and debts
You should also make note of things like credit cards, paychecks, and tax returns. After your death, someone will need to make sure any remaining bills are paid and income tax returns filed. Preparing a list during estate planning can make this process much easier.
2. Devise a plan and review your goals
As you go through the estate planning process, you should make sure that you answer the following questions:
What assets do you need to pass on to your loved ones?
Who are your beneficiaries and how much should each person receive?
Who do you want to disburse your assets and manage your estate?
Who will become the guardian of any minor children?
Do you need to plan for a blended family or family member with special needs?
What kind of end-of-life care do you want to receive if you can’t care for yourself?
Who should make decisions for you if you become incapacitated?
Do you have a plan for charitable giving?
How much do you expect your estate to be worth? Are you concerned about inheritance or estate taxes?
If your estate plan doesn't provide an answer for each of these questions, you should revisit it. Instead of creating a completely new plan, you may be able to revise the estate planning documents you already have.
3. Write a will and consider a trust
Your last will and testament, or simply your will, covers who gets what assets and how much they should each receive. At the very least, you should have this important document, which can also name a guardian for your minor children and nominate an executor to manage your affairs once you’re gone. It's possible that you don't have many assets or don't care who gets them, but you can make things a lot simpler for your loved ones by planning what happens to your things. (You can even make a will online.)
For more control about what certain heirs should receive, you can set up a trust. A revocable trust can be straightforward to use and provide more control about how your beneficiaries receive an inheritance.
4. Plan for future medical and financial decisions
In the event that you become incapacitated and unable to take care of yourself, your loved ones can know the health care treatment you wanted to receive via living will. (Be careful not to confuse this with your regular will.) Also called an advance directive, this document should cover all your preferences around end-of-life medical care. You can also establish a health care power of attorney also known as a health care proxy that allows you to designate a person to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to.
You should also name someone to manage your legal and financial affairs if you become incapacitated by establishing a durable power of attorney (DPOA). This legal document names who can legally act on your behalf, including if you become mentally incapacitated.
5. Check your beneficiary designations
Be sure to add a beneficiary to all your financial accounts, which can be made payable or transferable upon your death. Payable-on-death (POD) accounts can pass outside of probate, and are an essential part of your estate plan. (They’re one of the few things you should never put in your will.) You should make periodic reviews of your beneficiaries as your life circumstances change.
6. Protect your wealth
If you have a large estate, you should take a few extra steps to make sure your beneficiaries get the most of your hard-earned wealth. As part of your estate plan you may want to consider some form of asset protection or a tax-minimization strategy, as through an irrevocable trust. Only the wealthiest of estates have to worry about federal estate tax, but you may have other concerns, like capital gains tax, or inheritance tax faced by your heirs. (Some states also charge their own estate tax with different tax rates.) A financial advisor and estate planning attorney can give legal advice about gift planning for your specific circumstances.
Get life insurance
A life insurance policy can provide financial protection for your spouse and dependents regardless of what assets you have. Your beneficiaries can usually receive the life insurance death benefit as a tax-free lump sum after you die.
7. Store your estate planning documents
There’s nothing stopping you from letting your beneficiaries or family know the details of your estate plan. You can even give them copies of your will or any other estate planning documents as you see fit. If no one can find your will, it will delay probate, and if it’s never found it’ll be like you never wrote in the first place.