The Essential Estate Planning Documents: What You Need and Why


We all hope terrible situations will never hurt us or our loved ones. But making practical plans for your eventual death will make your passing easier. That’s true whether you die unexpectedly at a young age or you live to be 140 years old.Here are the six key estate planning documents that most people will eventually need. You might think all you need is a will, but once you understand how everything works, you’ll see why you need all these documents and how they work together to ensure your family’s needs and your final wishes are met.If you don’t have a robust estate plan, keep reading to find out what you need.

A will is basically a statement of who gets what property when you die. If you owe money when you die, your assets will be used to pay off your debts, and the remainder will go to your beneficiaries — the people (or charities) you select in your will.For parents, your will also gives information about who you want to care for your children or fur-babies if you die.A will (or a last will and testament) is your most important estate planning document, and every adult needs one. Even if you have a negative net worth (meaning you owe more than you have in assets), a will is useful. The document will outline who should receive your personal effects (jewelry, musical instruments, and personal items). And in a few years, when you have more assets, everything will be taken care of appropriately.Instead, a basic will that you sign in front of two friends is sufficient. Want to get a will on a budget? My husband and I had a will drafted for free using campus legal services when he was in school.I also received a heavily discounted will from a lawyer using my company’s legal services. At the time, I asked both lawyers about law template services like those offered by LegalZoom, and neither seemed impressed by the services.That said, in my non-professional and non-legally credentialed opinion, you don’t need a will drafted by a lawyer until you own property, have children, or have substantial assets. Use a free template online, or buy one from LegalZoom or a similar service.As you’re building your will, be sure to make a list of all your assets (don’t forget digital assets such as domain names and websites), your debts, and who you want to administer your will. Be sure to sign the will in front of witnesses to make it legal.This should be a physical document, although storing a digital copy could be useful.

A living will is a document that explains your wishes pertaining to your medical care. Most people include information about whether they want to be kept alive by machines if there is no chance at getting better. You may want to include information about pain management and organ donation too.Anyone that adheres to specific beliefs that influence their medical decisions should specify these in their living will.This should be a physical document, although storing a digital copy could be useful.

A medical power of attorney is a document that authorizes a person (usually a spouse, a parent, an adult child, or a close friend) to make medical decisions on your behalf. This document is also known as an advance health care directive. The medical power of attorney is different from a living will. It is meant to cover you for scenarios you cannot predict. Your agent (the person you appoint to make decisions for you) does not have any power until you are no longer capable of making decisions yourself.Medical power of attorney becomes increasingly important if you’re facing cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.Although many people think of a medical power of attorney as a document for older people, the document is just as important for young people. If you are unmarried and you want an unmarried partner, a friend, or a sibling to be your agent, draw up a document. Otherwise, a parent may become your agent.This should be a physical document, although storing a digital copy could be useful.

A financial power of attorney is the right for a person you appoint to make financial decisions on your behalf. A financial power of attorney is generally drafted so that it goes into effect for either a limited period of time or only when you become incapacitated.A limited financial power of attorney may be appropriate if you want someone to continue paying your bills while you are deployed overseas for a military operation. This person should be able to access your bank account, and pay bills on your behalf. But you must be careful with this. A person with access to your account will have the power to steal from you, so you must trust them.A “springing” financial power of attorney goes into effect when you become mentally or physically incapacitated.This should be a physical document, although storing a digital copy could be useful.Note: Many financial institutions have their own forms that you need to fill out in addition to a financial power of attorney. Not to say it can’t be done with just a POA, but having the appropriate forms filled out at your bank and investment firm can be very helpful.

Not everyone needs life insurance, but if you’ve got life insurance, it’s important for your beneficiaries to be able to access the documents. Depending on where you have a policy, getting policy documents may be easy by downloading them online, or you may have to jump through a lot of hoops to access them.If you cannot easily access the policy documents online, I recommend saving your documents in a fireproof safe, and informing someone (hopefully a spouse or other beneficiary of the proceeds) about the policy.Also, be sure to consider your amount of insurance every time you have a major life event. Getting married, buying a house, getting a massive raise, and having kids may lead you to want more insurance.Check out this list of where to get the best term life insurance.

One of the less considered parts of estate planning is what will happen to your digital life when you die. If you own digital property (such as a website) that generates income for you, consider whether you want a spouse or loved one to take it over in the event of your death. If there’s no obvious succession plan, establish a relationship with a digital broker who may want to buy the site from you.Aside from monetary property, you’ll need your heirs to have access to your digital life including passwords for financial institutions, social media passwords, online storage accounts (such as Dropbox, cloud-based storage for photos, etc.), and web-based property (think digital movies and books).Keeping these things organized is not easy for me, so I’ve established two LastPass accounts. The first account is a work-based account. For this account, a colleague is designated as my emergency contact. If I become ill or die, that colleague can access the account.My other LastPass account is a personal account which contains all my personal passwords, information about life insurance, and more. My husband is my designated emergency contact. I also helped him set up a similar password manager for his accounts.

If you have substantial assets, and you’re starting to think about distributing them in an effective way, it makes sense to meet with a financial planner, an accountant, and an estate planning attorney. These professionals can make a bespoke plan that will make sure your assets are distributed according to your wishes.Of course, not everyone needs a bespoke plan. If you’re a parent with a few assets and a life insurance policy, you may want a lawyer to help you draft a will. A professional can give you the peace of mind that everything is as it should be.In my experience, the discounted legal services offered through my company have been more than sufficient to meet this need. If you can’t find free or discounted legal services, use the American Bar Association’s lawyer finder to find a licensed attorney in your state.The last resource I recommend is called the In Case of Emergency (ICE) Binder. This binder is a tool specifically designed to help parents make practical plans for emergency situations. The binder is incredibly practical, and it includes sections on everything from how to use insurance money to what your child’s schedule and preferences are.

Written by Investors Wallets

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