Do It Now: 8 Essential Documents for Estate Planning

These documents will help you put your affairs in order now -- so you don't leave a legal mess for your loved ones when you die.

If you want to be remembered fondly by loved ones, tackle your estate-planning tasks. Your heirs will thank you for not leaving a legal mess for them to sort out.

Many of us want to get going but don’t know where to start. Here’s what you should know about eight documents that can help you get your affairs in order.

If that sounds like a lot of paperwork, don’t worry: You probably won’t need every document.

1. Last will and testament

A will gives you the power to decide what is in the best interests of your children and pets after you’re gone. It also can help you determine what will happen to possessions with financial or sentimental value. It typically names an executor — someone who will be in charge of following your directions. Finally, you can include any funeral provisions.

Use your will to name guardians for those under your care, including minor children and pets. Designate any assets you are leaving for their care.

If you’re married, your spouse needs a separate will, AARP says.

In the absence of a will, a probate court will name an executor for your estate, typically a spouse or grown child. Probate proceedings are a matter of public record. So keep private information — passwords, for example — out of your will, as that information could become part of a public document.

Update your will as big changes occur — marriage, divorce, inheritance, the purchase of real estate or the birth of a child. If you move to a new state, have your will reviewed by an attorney in the new state.

You can change or add to a will by making a new will or adding a supplement, called a “codicil.” Get an attorney’s help if you have substantial assets or a legally complex personal or financial situation.

2. Revocable living trust

A living trust is another tool for passing assets to heirs while avoiding potentially expensive and time-consuming probate court proceedings.

You name a trustee — perhaps a spouse, family member or attorney — to manage your property. Unlike a will, a trust can be used to distribute property now or after your death.

You can change a revocable living trust as long as you’re mentally competent.

If you have substantial property or wealth, a trust can provide tax savings.

ElderLawAnswers further explains differences between trusts and wills.

Creating a trust is not a do-it-yourself project. Get an attorney’s help.

3. Beneficiary designations

When you purchase life insurance or open a retirement plan or bank account, you’re often asked to name a beneficiary — the person you want to inherit the proceeds when you die. These designations are powerful, and they take precedence over instructions in a will.

Keep beneficiary designation papers with your estate-planning documents. Review and update them as your life changes.

4. Durable power of attorney

Choose someone to act on your behalf, financially and legally, in the event that you can’t make decisions.

Don’t put off this chore. You must be legally competent to assign power of attorney. Older people worried about relinquishing control sometimes put off the task until they are no longer legally competent to do it.

If you do not designate a power of attorney, your family’s hands could be tied should you become incapacitated — which can happen to young people as well as the elderly.

“For most people, the durable power of attorney is the most important estate-planning instrument available — even more useful than a will,” says ElderLawAnswers.

Some financial institutions won’t accept a general power of attorney document. Ask your financial institutions if they have a separate power of attorney form that you must use.

Don’t have someone you trust to designate as your power of attorney? ElderLawAnswers adds:

” … it may be more appropriate to have the probate court looking over the shoulder of the person who is handling your affairs through a guardianship or conservatorship. In that case, you may execute a limited durable power of attorney simply nominating the person you want to serve as your conservator or guardian.”

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