For many people, just the thought of estate planning is overwhelming. Questions abound: How do I start? How complicated will it be? What do I need an attorney to help prepare? How do I find the right lawyer? All of these unknowns can be enough to deter most from moving forward with the process.
That’s where we come in. Part of our job as attorneys is to simplify complexity. We encourage clients not to overthink what is needed to get the estate planning process started. We’ll help you gather the information needed to bring your plan together.
That said, for those who want to anticipate and understand what is needed, this basic estate planning checklist should cover most of your needs:
The very first question you should ask yourself is not who should get everything when you pass away, but who should make decisions on your behalf should something happen while you are living. If an emergency occurred tomorrow, do you have family members or friends who are legally authorized to handle your affairs?
Signed, notarized powers of attorney and health care proxies are required to formalize this legal relationship, even between married couples. These crucial (and often overlooked) documents should be part of everyone’s estate plans. Not having them in place can result in an expensive, time-consuming court process in the event your loved ones ever need to assist you.
2. Create a written inventory of your assets
Once you’ve determined who will legally make decisions for you (in the event you cannot manage your own affairs), you will need to ensure they are equipped to serve your needs appropriately. Ideally, those tasked with managing your affairs would have access to a spreadsheet containing a list of the following:
Bank, investment, and retirement account information (account numbers, login usernames/passwords, balances, and beneficiary designations)
Owned real estate (addresses, co-owner information, lender and mortgage balance, copies of deeds)
Family member names and contact information
Attorney, accountant, and financial advisor names and contact information
Your estate planning lawyers will also need this information to advise you properly and prepare your documents. At Pelletier Marshall & Clark, we begin the estate planning process with clients by providing them with a questionnaire that covers these and other key questions.
3. Make your wishes known
After you’ve taken stock of your assets and considered who will serve as your health care proxy and power of attorney, it’s advantageous to have a conversation with them. Give them an opportunity to ask questions, know your healthcare wishes (e.g. desires regarding medical assistance), and understand your financial assets. We encourage clients to provide whomever they have appointed with copies of their estate planning documents as well, once they have been executed.
It’s also important to provide your financial institutions with your power of attorney and your doctors with your health care proxy, once they are in place. By doing so, you’ll allow your designated person(s) to step in immediately to assist you, without delay, using documents that have already been reviewed by these institutions and become part of your account, or medical record.
4. Make a will and a trust
Now it’s time to consider how things will be left to your loved ones upon your passing. Some key questions to decide are: Who will receive your estate, and in what proportions or dollar amounts? Who will be appointed to administer this process and give your beneficiaries their inheritance?
It is also important to consider your goals. Are your goals to:
Maximize the inheritance received by loved ones?
Make the appropriate arrangements to provide for a minor (someone under 18) or someone disabled?
Ease the burden for whomever is tasked with administering your estate?
All of the above?
At the risk of oversimplifying the process, your wishes need to be clearly laid out in a written document that conforms with state law. This generally takes the form of a will or a trust. A basic estate plan always includes a will. A more advanced plan ─ for those interested in preserving assets and making things easy for their family ─ usually includes a trust.
These decisions are yours to make. Our role as lawyers is to guide you through the process, take the complexity out of the process as much as possible, and equip you with the knowledge you need so that we can implement a plan together that best suits your needs.
5. Review your plan regularly and update as necessary
Fast forward to the end of the process. Together, we have created your trust, will, power of attorney, and health care proxy. The plan is in place. Are you done? Yes, you’re done, but it’s always good to pick up the plan occasionally and review it. We recommend to our clients that they review their will and trust with us again when big life changes occur━marriage, divorce, the passing of a loved one, retirement, or the sale/acquisition of real estate or other important assets.
Life changes and with it so do many of the many factors that determine the nature of your estate plan. The good news is that once your plan is in place, you’ve got your foundation. Any changes that need to be made to the plan along the way are almost always far easier to execute than the initial plan itself.
Your Estate Planning Guide
The estate planning attorneys at Pelletier Marshall & Clark are ready to help. We execute powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, wills, trusts, and more for clients in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Contact us for a free, no-pressure consultation.
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