Wills and trusts are integral to the distribution of your assets, but there are a few more important estate planning documents you should consider having. For one thing, estate planning isn't just about who gets your property and belongings when you die. Neither a will nor trust covers what happens in the event that you become incapacitated or unable to make medical or financial decisions on your own. You'll need other estate documents like a living will and durable power of attorney form for that.
1. Will document
A will is a legal document that describes who gets your assets and property. It's usually the first thing that comes to mind regarding estate planning. Wills let you bequeath assets to your beneficiaries. choose a guardian for any minor children, and name an executor (also known as a personal representative) to guide your estate through the probate process after you die. You can even use the will as a backup measure to "pour over" assets into a trust, if you have one, upon your death.
Having a will in place prevents the court from deciding who inherits your assets after you pass away based on state law.
2. Trust document
A trust is a separate entity that holds your property and valuables, which can be distributed according to the terms of the trust agreement — another important estate planning document. As part of an estate plan, you can open a living trust while you’re alive, or create a testamentary trust through your will.
Trusts come in many types, like revocable or irrevocable, and one of them may be right for you. Irrevocable trusts offer advantages related to financial planning, like helping reduce your estate tax liability or protect assets from creditors.
Learn how to set up a trust.
3. Letter of instruction
The letter of instruction is an easily digestible summary or the Sparknotes version of will. Written in plain English, this estate planning document should include an explicit statement that it has no legal standing in probate so that it can't conflict with the will, itself. It can be an important part of an estate plan since it typically includes the testator's personal sentiments and hopes and dreams for their beneficiaries. For this reason it's also sometimes called an ethical will.
Learn more about letters of instruction.
4. Durable power of attorney
The durable power of attorney is an estate planning document that grants someone you trust control of your affairs if you become incapacitated. You can establish separate powers of attorney for medical and financial affairs. The person you give financial power of attorney to can do things like buy and sell real estate, make mortgage payments, and close a bank account on your behalf. Someone with a durable medical power of attorney can make health care related decisions for you.
Read more about power of attorney and how to get one.
5. Living will or advance directive
Don't get confused: a living wills are another type of estate planning document, but they do not have to do with the distribution of assets and property. People use a living will, also known as an advance medical directive, to provide instructions regarding their end-of-life care. It can detail the types of medical treatments you approve of and whether or not you want to be taken off of life support if you're terminally ill.
In some cases, the advance directive may also allow you to name a health care proxy to make medical decisions on your behalf. If not, then you’ll have to establish a proxy separately with a health care power of attorney form as we previously mentioned. (Check with an estate-planning attorney to learn more about local laws and forms in your state to make sure you're covered on all bases.)
Read more about living wills.
Other estate planning documents
Certain people may benefit from additional estate documents:
Beneficiary designation forms for bank accounts and retirement plans
Estate planning attorney, financial planner, and tax accountant contact information
Remember to keep everything together in a safe place that is easily accessible, or consider leaving your estate documents with your executor, a trusted friend, or lawyer. Locking them up in a safety deposit box might make it harder to access later after you’ve passed away.