Let’s be frank—no one likes to think about death and end-of-life arrangements. However, being prepared for the inevitable is not only a smart thing, it’s a kindness for loved ones. A recent article, “12 Documents to Prepare Now for Your Heirs,” from U.S. News & World Report, explains what you must do and how much harder it will be for loved ones if you don’t take these steps.
Failing to put your estate in order means family or friends will have to rely on probate court to determine the distribution of your property. Depending on your jurisdiction, this could create lengthy delays, additional court costs and unwanted outcomes. Heirs may also miss out on life insurance proceeds, or accounts may be overlooked if no one knows they exist.
Last Will and Testament. A will is used to name an executor to manage your estate, outline your wishes for property distribution and name a guardian for any minor children. You can use it to make arrangements for pets. However, a pet trust is enforceable and may be a better solution.
Trusts. A “funded” trust bypasses probate and gives more control over how assets are distributed. For instance, a trust can stipulate minor children do not receive access to their funds until a specific age or milestone is reached. Even with a trust, parents of minor children still need a will to name a guardian.
Letter of Explanation. Sometimes called a letter of intent, this document provides the rationale for instructions in the will. This can be especially important if assets are not being divided equally. Expressing your intentions may help avoid animosity between family members. Consider having a family meeting at your estate planning attorney’s office if this is awkward. With your attorney present, a neutral location may be easier and less confrontational than a discussion at home.
Asset Inventory. Create a complete list of all financial accounts and named beneficiaries. Each account may have a designated beneficiary or transfer on death provision. People often forget about these beneficiaries, so they should be checked to be sure they are correct.
Personal Items Inventory. If you want specific items to go to specific people, list them in your will. In some states, a personal property memorandum can be used for tangible property.
Power of Attorney. The POA is for use while you are living. If you become incapacitated because of an illness or accident, the POA lets a designated person make financial and legal decisions on your behalf. A Health Care POA allows a person to make medical decisions. Everyone should have these documents.
Life Insurance Policies. Heirs won’t know if you have policies unless you tell them. Keep records of your life insurance plans with important financial papers.
Real Estate Documents. Records like deeds, assessments, titles, mortgage statements and tax information should be included with documents prepared for heirs.
Recent Tax Returns. Tax returns contain a wealth of information for executors. Share the name of your CPA, so they can guide your family through filing final tax returns for your estate.
Online Accounts. Create a list of usernames and passwords and store it where heirs can access the information.
Digital Estate Plan. You’ll need a digital estate plan to provide directives of what you want to happen with your digital assets, including social media accounts, websites, digital photos, intellectual property and other files and documents. On certain platforms, you can designate a legacy contact who can access and manage your data after death.
Final Wishes and Arrangements. Your final wishes should be shared with your executor and family members. If you’ve made prearrangements for a funeral, memorial service, burial, or cremation, make sure that the information is shared. It’s a great relief for family members to know what you want rather than having to guess.
An experienced estate planning attorney can help ensure that all of your bases are covered.
Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Oct. 27, 2023) “12 Documents to Prepare Now for Your Heirs”