Estate Planning Checklist: Get Your Affairs In Order – Forbes Advisor


Published: Dec 25, 2023, 4:02am

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Estate planning is one of the most important things you will do during your lifetime. Making a plan in case you become incapacitated and preparing for your eventual death can help you to protect your assets and preserve your legacy.

There are many steps that go into this process. This estate planning checklist will help you to do all that you need to ensure that your wishes are met and to simplify the process for your loved ones.

Simple Estate Planning Checklist

Everyone’s planning process will be different because they must address the issues unique to their situation. For example, someone with a substantial amount of wealth will have different planning needs than an individual without a lot of money who has a disabled loved one to provide for.

Still, there are a few primary steps just about everyone should take to protect their own future and secure their legacy. Here’s what they are.

1. Identify the Steps Necessary to Protect Your Wealth

Protecting assets against potential loss is one of the key parts of estate planning. You’ll want to be sure that your money and property are safe both during your lifetime and after you pass.

One of the most important ways you can do this is to create a Medicaid plan. Nursing home care is very costly and it’s not covered by Medicare or other medical insurance except in very limited situations. Medicaid does cover custodial care in a nursing home, which is the routine care most people need—but you must have limited assets to qualify. Making a Medicaid plan to avoid spending down your wealth while ensuring you can get access to nursing home coverage can be very important.

You may also wish to protect your assets against creditor claims, make sure that an irresponsible heir doesn’t spend the money that you leave to them, take steps to reduce or avoid estate taxes if you have a larger estate, or avoid the probate process.

The first step in your estate plan should be to identify all of these potential threats to your estate so you can choose the right tools to keep your money and property safe. An attorney can help you with this process if you aren’t sure where to start.

2. Consider the Needs of Your Heirs

You will also need to consider any unique circumstances that could affect the people who will inherit your wealth—or your ability to provide for them.

For instance, individuals with special needs may receive means-tested government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Medicaid. Providing an inheritance directly to these individuals could jeopardize their access to these benefits. You would need to take this into account when making your estate plan.

Other issues that could affect your planning process include:

  • Leaving money or property to minor children who cannot yet manage the funds.
  • Leaving money to someone who you don’t trust to be responsible with managing it.

By thinking about who you hope to provide for, you can make informed choices about the kinds of tools to use to make your plans for what happens after your death.

Again, an estate planning attorney can assist you with identifying circumstances that exist that could affect the legal tools you must use to implement your plan.

3. Make a Plan for the Transfer of Assets

Armed with knowledge of your heirs’ needs and the potential threats to your wealth, you can make an estate plan that facilitates the timely and efficient transfer of your property to the appropriate parties after death.

This plan could include:

  • A last will and testament. This is a simple tool you can use to specify who inherits. You can also create a testamentary trust in your will, which is commonly used when providing an inheritance to minor children who are unable to manage the assets on their own.
  • Pay-on-death accounts. These can facilitate the automatic transfer of assets to designated beneficiaries.
  • Jointly owned property. Owning property with others as joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenants by the entirety could allow property to pass automatically to loved ones.
  • Revocable trusts. These flexible trusts allow you to retain substantial control over assets during your lifetime while allowing money and property to transfer outside of probate after your death. They do not protect against estate tax or most creditor claims due to your continued control of trust assets.
  • Irrevocable trusts. These can be used to shield your assets as part of a Medicaid plan and to help you avoid estate taxes—but you’ll need to give up a lot more control over your assets during your lifetime.

You may also need to use specialized estate planning tools, such as a special needs trust that allows money to be put into trust and used for a disabled person’s benefit without jeopardizing their access to means-tested government support programs.

An experienced attorney can help you to understand the kinds of special tools and legal arrangements you can use to best provide for loved ones and keep your wealth safe both now and in the future.

4. Address Other Issues Raised by Your Death

If you have minor children, you’ll need to name a guardian for them if you don’t want the courts to end up deciding who will raise them to adulthood.

You’ll often do this by including a guardianship clause in your last will and testament. If you have pets, you may also wish to ensure you’ve found someone to care for them and arrange financial support for the rest of their lifetime.

You may also wish to provide instructions for your funeral and for what happens to your body after you are gone. You can do this in your will or can even pre-plan your funeral and purchase a cemetery plot.

5. Prepare for Potential Incapacity

In addition to protecting your assets and facilitating the transfer of wealth, preparing for your possible incapacity should be a key part of your estate planning checklist.

You can do this using a number of tools including:

  • Creating a durable power of attorney. This gives you the chance to name someone to act on your behalf in managing assets and making decisions for you in the event you become incapacitated.
  • Naming a healthcare proxy. You can give someone healthcare power of attorney or name a healthcare proxy who will consent to or deny medical interventions on your behalf and make difficult decisions such as whether or not extraordinary measures should be used to keep you alive.
  • Creating a living will. A living will allows you to consent, or deny consent, in advance to medical care in the event of a serious illness or injury. You can specify in advance things like whether you want to be kept alive on a ventilator or receive artificial nutrition or hydration.

Being prepared for potential incapacity can help to ensure your loved ones don’t have to go to court, prove you are incapable of acting on your own, and have a guardian appointed. It can also ensure your family or friends don’t have to make tough decisions such as whether to withdraw life support after a serious illness or accident.

Get Legal Help With the Estate Planning Process

It’s very important that you check off every item on your estate planning checklist as once you become incapacitated or pass away, it will be impossible for you to go back and do the things you missed.

Working with an experienced attorney can help to ensure you do everything you need to be ready for whatever the future brings your way. Get legal help today to secure your legacy and take control of your future health choices.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the steps in the estate planning process?

The steps in the estate planning process include arranging for the transfer of your assets in a way that protects your heirs and prepares for future incapacity. You can use a will, trust or other tools to facilitate the transfer of assets in a manner that is appropriate given who your beneficiaries are. You can also use a living will and a healthcare power of attorney to ensure the right medical choices are made if you are too sick or hurt to give consent.

What affairs do you need to get in order before death?

Before death, you should provide instructions for your loved ones about your funeral arrangements and what you want to happen to your body. You should make a plan to facilitate the transfer of assets after your death, which could include using a will or a trust. And you should make sure your wishes are known regarding what extreme measures, if any, you want taken to prolong your life.

You should also address guardianship of children and pets. An attorney can help you to get your affairs in order.

What is included in a proper estate plan?

A proper estate plan must be personalized to the individual who is creating it. In some cases, it is sufficient to just create a last will and testament. In other circumstances, advanced tools such as a special needs trust may be necessary to ensure assets can transfer to heirs and can be properly managed without causing a loss of means-tested benefits.

An attorney can provide assistance in using all of the appropriate legal tools to secure your legacy and protect both your own future and the future of those you love.

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Christy Bieber is a personal finance and legal writer with more than a decade of experience. She earned her JD from UCLA School of Law and was an adjunct professor at the start of her career, teaching paralegal studies and related courses. In addition to writing for the web, she has also designed educational courses and written textbooks focused on a variety of legal subjects.

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