It is easy to put off estate planning for another day (or month or year). Perhaps you aren’t sure how to get started. The following are five simple steps that will move you in the right direction.
1. Create a deadline. Everyone responds more quickly when there is a deadline. Set a deadline for when you will have your estate planning in place. Choose a date not too far out, but also allow for time to gather the information you will need to create a will, confer with your attorney, and have the plan completed. Three months from now would be reasonable.
2. Collect financial information. This is a task that begs for a spreadsheet. List all your assets and investments, showing their current market values, debts against them, and net values. Show how they are titled (you alone, jointly with your spouse?). Start a physical file where you place deeds and current statements, so you can show them to your attorney.
Here’s a checklist of what to include:
- Your home
- Any other real estate
- Autos, boat, other titled property
- Bank accounts
- Retirement savings
- Business and partnership interests
- Life insurance policies and annuities
- Items of special value
- Other debts (credit cards, personal loans, unsecured lines of credit)
3. Who will inherit from you? Decide who will be your heirs – and this often is not as simple as you might think. Yes, there is your spouse and your children. What about siblings, a life partner to whom you aren’t married, stepchildren, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, special friends, a pet? Then there are institutions (schools, churches) and charitable organizations. Create this master list, and gather the information your executor will need, such as full legal names, dates of birth, current addresses, how they are related to you. Then decide how much they will inherit, and how it will be distributed. For instance, you may not want a young person to receive a large lump sum, but installment payments over time. If you have minor children, you may need to create a child’s trust in your will. These are matters to discuss with your estate planning attorney.
4. Your executor. Choosing an executor deserves some thought, according to lawyers that handle wills. Let’s say you decide to appoint your eldest child – but your children have a history of disagreeing with one another. This will only add fuel to the fire. Sometimes it’s best to choose someone outside of the family, such as a professional (lawyer, accountant). The executor should be someone you trust, whose judgment you respect, and who will carry out your wishes.
5. Select your attorney. Estate planning is too important to “go it alone.” It’s best to find an estate attorney who will counsel you through a number of additional issues, such as a health care directive (also called a living will). Your attorney will also make sure documents are drafted properly according to your state laws. He or she will also make sure language is structured in a way that makes your wishes clear to your executor and heirs.