Most often, there are 2 groups of people who seek help with estate planning. There are those who want to build a legacy and leave behind an organized estate, and there are others who look at their parents’ estate and wonder, “How in the world am I going to deal with all of this?

I will be honest, this is a topic that has a lot to cover. Today, I will start by sharing the basic steps for organizing your own estate. 

1. Write down your goals and intentions

This sounds like an easy step, right? For me, it seemed easy until I tried to put the pen to paper. This first step can take time and contemplation, and I encourage you to do it before you step foot into an attorney’s office.

Think about how you want to be remembered.

Do you want to pay for your grandkids’ college, leave endowments for charities, or maybe create a scholarship for a field you are passionate about? If you do not write down your intentions, they will never happen.

When you are confident in your legacy goals, share your intentions and questions with an estate planning attorney. They will match your ideas with the right tools to get you there. Think ahead about which of your friends or family members will be able to responsibly carry out your plan. Remember, many attorneys bill by the minute, so any preparation you can do on your own may save you money!

2. Complete beneficiary designations! 

Some people delay creating an estate plan because it is too expensive, or they are too busy. If you fall into that category, this point is for you. There is a fast, easy, and FREE way to ensure your financial assets are left to the people you choose. 

All your financial accounts should list a beneficiary. Alternatively, there might be Transfer on Death or Payable on Death designations which are essentially the same thing. Here is a short illustration for why you need to set beneficiary designations:

You and your fiancé had been together for years, but the actual wedding kept getting put off. However, you shared everything with each other, including your finances. You wanted your 401(k) to be left to him, but you never named a beneficiary and you died without a will. As a result, a court gave your hard-earned savings to the closest blood relative, an estranged half-sister… who blew the money within months.

This would have been avoided with a simple beneficiary designation! If you can access your accounts online, it will take 5 minutes to set a beneficiary. If you cannot complete it online, it takes a quick call to your institution to request a form. Again, it’s fast and it’s free. Do not let this go undone!  

Beneficiary designations do not replace the need for a will, but they are a huge step in the right direction! 

3. Draft your documents

Attorneys’ offices can be intimidating. However, most of the estate planning attorneys I have met are very warm and eager to educate and prepare you. Truly, calling to schedule your first meeting is the biggest hurdle.

At your meeting, there are 4 basic documents they will likely draft for you:

  • will
  • power of attorney
  • healthcare power of attorney
  • living will or medical directives

In some cases, they might also recommend a trust, which requires choosing trustees. The people you designate as power of attorney will carry out your business if you are incapacitated or unable to make decisions on your own. This position carries extensive responsibility, so choose someone you trust completely. The executor is responsible for carrying out the instructions in your will. Even for complex estates, an executor’s duties are generally wrapped up within a year, but it is still a big job. Choose an individual with flexibility in their schedule and a good head on their shoulders. Depending on the trust, a trustee may serve for many years or even a lifetime; this requires significant financial responsibility.    

4. Sit down with your “key players” and your financial advisor

I have seen clients go through all the hard work of drafting estate documents only to leave them in a drawer and do nothing with them.

First, be sure your powers of attorney, executors, and trustees understand their responsibilities. Tell them where they can find your important papers and how to contact your attorney.

Second, review your plan with your financial advisor. They can give you a second opinion on whether your documents seem to meet your goals.

Also, it is important that your advisor help ensure that your account organization and beneficiaries do not contradict your estate documents. If your will says your sister gets everything but your brother is still the beneficiary on the IRA you opened 20 years ago, there will be conflict… and your brother may get the money. Get your advisor involved to help make sure this does not happen.

This is just the tip of the estate planning iceberg, so I hope I did not keep the conversation too shallow. If you want to read more in-depth information on a specific estate planning topic, send me a message with your questions. I might just make it the subject of my next post!

Again, I know that estate planning is intimidating and a little grim, but it does not have to be this way. Creating an organized plan is self-care and is sure to bring you peace of mind and confidence!