Estate Planning 101

Benjamin Haas |

Did you know that only about 30% of people have a will? While some may think it’s not necessary to obtain estate documents or to update the ones they have, it’s imperative that they do. We recognize this process can be scary when there are lots of documents and terms that aren’t easy to understand, so here’s Estate Planning 101! This includes all the important information on what you really need to know about the estate planning process in a digestible format that’s easy to understand.

Why is it important to have estate documents?

It’s crucial to have estate planning documents as it properly documents your wishes for everything that happens after you pass away. This includes who is going to help settle your estate (the executor) and who is getting what out of your assets (the beneficiaries). Without this documentation, there is a good chance that what you would’ve wanted to happen, won’t because there is a standard system to settle estates without documentation (this is typically referred to as dying “intestate” and can vary state to state).

What documents should I have?

The list below are the basic documents that everyone should have and a description to understand what each includes. The specifics of what is in the document is based on the individual’s wishes and phase of life, such as a living trust might be included when you have minor children but then you would update the documents and remove it once they are all adults.

Another important thing to note is that any beneficiaries listed on accounts will supersede the information documented in the Will. Therefore, it’s very important to review beneficiary designations on all accounts and making sure your estate documents are updated periodically to reflect exactly what you would want to happen.

A Will

  • This document is the method that many people use to transfer non-financial assets upon death. These are relatively inexpensive to acquire but, in most cases, will result in probate which can be time-consuming and expensive. 
  • If you’re an individual with minor children, it will be worthwhile to review with an attorney the purposes and relevance of trusts in certain situations.

Power of Attorney for Asset Management

  • This document appoints someone that you trust to handle your financial affairs. The form also lists those areas in which you allow the individual to assist you. An immediate or durable power of attorney allows your agent to immediately act on your behalf.  A springing power-of-attorney goes into effect only when you are incapacitated. It would be important to talk to an attorney and make sure you receive the form that is most appropriate for your situation.

The Advanced Health Care Directive

  • This document is a specific form that lists your healthcare preferences to be used only at a time when you cannot communicate your wishes. It puts your family, doctors and hospitals on notice as to the types of treatments/tests/care you would or would not want.  It also lists those empowered to make health care decisions on your behalf should you not be able to express your desires.


Who should I pick to fill the roles?

One of our favorite things to say is, “it depends!”  Many people default to picking their eldest child, but that might not be the best choice due to a multitude of reasons. Whoever is chosen for the role of Executor, Power of Attorney, and Healthcare Power of Attorney should be an individual who you trust and will follow your wishes. The same person can be named in all three documents if that is what you want, but isn’t necessary. Also, it might be beneficial to have a conversation ahead of finalizing your estate documents with whomever you had in mind to make sure they are willing to assume the role you want to give them. That leads to having a secondary person listed as well in all documentation just in case the original person is no longer able to serve the position you have them listed for.

How can I communicate my wishes to my family?

Once you’ve figured out who you want to be named in your estate planning documents and have everything completed, it’s always a good idea to communicate with loved ones so they can understand what you would like to happen. This can be a difficult conversation to have if the family dynamic isn’t the best, but try to remind them that these are important decisions you had to make and you picked certain people because that’s who YOU thought would be the best fit. At the end of the day, you should feel confident in the decisions you’ve made and not be persuaded otherwise just for the sake of trying to spare feelings.

Is there a way that I can document where everything is?

This isn’t part of the estate planning documents, but we would highly recommend considering having a document that we call a “Final Financial Plan.” What do we mean? It's our process of documenting where all the important information is in one place such as usernames and passwords, all accounts (bank, retirement, etc.), where original estate planning documents are located, essentially anything that would be helpful to settle an estate. The most important part is letting the executor know where this document is so that they have a guide which will make the estate settlement process much easier than having nothing as a reference.

Can you write my estate documents?

The quick answer to this question is no as only attorneys can draft these documents. However, we have discussed with many people about the process and how things efficiently pass to the next generation, especially if someone’s goal is leaving a legacy. We need to make sure the documents are in order, as well as be thoughtful about taxes and beneficiaries, which is part of the estate planning process.


This information is not intended to be a substitute for individualized legal advice.  Please consult your legal advisor regarding your specific situation.

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