Checklist for Estate Planning: Review Estate Planning Documents
Reginald A.T. Armstrong • Estate Planning
Estate planning is a complex process that is never fully finished. Even if you work with an estate planner and financial advisor, it is your responsibility to take an active role in making sure your plan is complete and up to date. With so many elements and moving parts, you may find it helpful to use a checklist for estate planning, particularly when it comes to reviewing your estate planning documents.
Nobody wants to think about meeting an untimely death, but the reality is we never know when our time will come. This is why reviewing your estate plan is something you can’t afford to ignore.
Why You Need an Updated Estate Plan
Some people make the mistake of believing that an estate plan is only necessary for the wealthy, but if you have any assets, property, possessions, or loved ones to consider, and if you don’t want the state to make decisions for you, an estate plan is essential. Even if you own very little, your estate plan should address other decisions that need to be made in case you are unable to speak for yourself and when you die.
Putting a plan in place is only the first step. All too often, estate plans are incomplete, leaving important components unaddressed. In addition to this, because your estate is continuously changing and the circumstances that affect your estate can shift over time, it is important to keep a close watch on your estate plan and make adjustments as needed.
Professionals generally advise that their clients review all of the documents in their estate plan every three to five years as well as after any major life changes.
You may need to update your plan documents if you’ve had a change in relationship status, such as a marriage, divorce, or the beginning or end of a domestic partnership. Perhaps a new child has entered the family, or there has been a death in the family. Maybe you’ve had a falling out with someone, or you’ve drifted apart, so you need to disinherit them, change your child’s guardianship, or update your power of attorney designation. You could’ve moved to a new state with different laws, started a business, or gained new assets. Or you’ve simply changed your mind about something.
It’s also important to keep in mind that beneficiary forms often supersede a will and a trust. For example, if your will or trust says the money goes to your current spouse, but your beneficiary form indicates that it goes to your ex-spouse, the money may go to your ex. So be sure to keep the beneficiaries on your insurance policies, retirement plans, IRAs, and account transfer on death addendums up to date.
You may not have even thought about some of the most common reasons to review and revise your estate plan. Take some time to carefully consider what life changes you may have missed since you originally put your estate plan in place, make the appropriate changes, and put a process in place to review your estate plan regularly.
Checklist for Estate Planning Documents
Your estate plan is only as complete, effective, and current as the documents you have in place. No matter your wishes or intentions, it’s critical that you have all of your desires in writing. Keep in mind, a will alone may not be enough to cover all of your bases.
Review the following documents periodically and when a life change occurs:
Note: This is a general checklist and not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive. The specific documents you’ll need to review and update depending on your unique circumstances and the laws of your state. Always consult with a trusted financial advisor and estate planning attorney.
Confirm that you’ve named an executor and back-up executor, and make certain each is still a person you would want to handle your affairs upon your passing. It is also a good idea to inform those people of their roles should something happen unexpectedly.
Confirm that you’ve named a guardian and back-up guardian for any minor children, and make certain each is still someone you would want to care for your children upon your passing.
Confirm that you’ve named the correct beneficiaries and determine if you would like to make any changes.
Do you wish to add a legacy letter or “ethical will” specifying the values you want to pass down to your family and information you want your beneficiaries to know?
Review and update the list of your assets, where they are located, and how you want them distributed.
Confirm that you’ve identified a trustee and that you would still like this person to serve as trustee after your passing.
Review how you’ve set up the trust and make adjustments in alignment with your wishes.
Do you want beneficiaries to receive assets outright, or would you rather set up income streams or distributions at intervals?
Are your beneficiaries young? If so, do you need to put measures in place to hold the assets until they are old enough to be more responsible?
What other parameters would you like to put in place?
Would you like to name an attorney, accountant, bank, or trust company as the trustee?
Should you fund the trust now in an effort to avoid probate for the assets and potentially make administration less costly?
Would you like to keep personal decisions regarding your estate out of the courts and public record? If so, confirm that you have documentation in place to distribute and manage assets during your lifetime in a way that also avoids probate after your death.
Discuss your wishes and the benefits of various types of trusts with your estate planning attorney. As your assets grow, trusts may become a more important tool to protect generational wealth.
Durable power of attorney
Confirm that you’ve named someone to handle your business affairs if you should become temporarily incapacitated or permanently disabled and that this person still aligns with your current wishes. Keep in mind, your durable power of attorney can sell, spend, or distribute your assets up until your death.
Check the specific powers you’ve designated to the durable power of attorney and make adjustments as you see fit.
Healthcare power of attorney
Confirm that you’ve named someone to make medical decisions on your behalf in the event that you are unable to do so, and that this person is still someone you trust to make these decisions.
Confirm that you’ve documented your wishes pertaining to life-sustaining measures to be taken in the event of your terminal injury or illness. The document should specify what you want done or not done. Make adjustments if you’ve changed your mind.
Do you wish to add a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)?
Miscellaneous Estate Planning Documents
Review and update the beneficiary designations on all life insurance policies.*
Review and update the beneficiary designations on all retirement accounts.*
Review and update beneficiary designations on transfer of death addendums for all bank and investment accounts.*
Leave updated instructions for how to handle your digital assets, such as online financial accounts, social media accounts, email accounts, websites, blogs, and digital files.
Review and update contingency plans for any businesses that you own.
*Remember, designations on beneficiary forms sometimes supersede the wishes you’ve outlined in your will or trust. Check all documents and review with your estate attorney.
Estate Planning Next Steps
As you can see, there is a lot to consider when it comes to estate planning. It’s an ongoing process with many moving parts. This estate planning checklist can serve as a starting point to continuously review and manage your estate plan over time. To safely protect your wishes and legacy, it’s best to work closely with an estate planning attorney, financial advisor, and accountant.
If you have had any major changes occur in your life recently or a few years have passed since putting your estate plan in place, it’s time to revisit it. Many people tend to put this important task off, but if you want your current wishes to be carried out, it’s essential that you have your estate plan reviewed as soon as possible.