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Everything you own, including your bank accounts, properties, cars, stamp, art or vinyl record collections, makes up your estate. Estate planning is essential to ensuring that you have a say in how your estate is distributed. It may seem unpleasant or complicated, but a little work now will be a huge relief to your loved ones later and will likely save them thousands of dollars.

A 2016 Gallop poll found that only 44 percent of Americans have a will, the basic building block of estate planning. Similarly, a 2019 survey from Caring.com found that while more than 50 percent of Americans have talked about estate planning, only 40 percent actually have a will or trust. Most of the respondents said they “just hadn’t gotten around to it.”

Unfortunately, procrastination in getting your estate plan in order can lead to a situation in which it is too late to execute documents due to incapacity or death.

Begin preparing today with this comprehensive step-by-step estate planning checklist, which includes definitions of relevant terms, estimated costs associated with estate planning, and a list of important documents.

Estate planning checklist:
  • Take inventory of your assets
  • Hire a professional
  • Create a will and designate beneficiaries
  • Consider a living trust
  • Designate power of attorney
  • Estimate taxes
  • Gather documentation
  • Schedule updates to your estate plan

Take Inventory of Your Assets

We sometimes associate the word “estate” with wealth, but the fact is that we all have an estate. Your estate is everything you own, all your property and possessions, and it might be more than you realize.

The first step of estate planning is taking stock of your assets:
  • Gather statements of investments, such as stocks, bonds and CDs.
  • Check the ownership of real estate.
  • Check the title of vehicles.
  • Gather statements of retirement accounts, including 401(k)s and IRAs and ensure that proper beneficiary designations are in place.
  • Gather statements on annuities.
  • Ensure that business interests are accounted for and ownership structure is known.
  • Take inventory of valuable jewelry, furniture, books, family heirlooms and other objects.

Once you inventory your property, you need to ask yourself an important question. What objects and assets do you want to protect and transfer to others upon your death? Consider things you own independently and jointly.

Then create a list of beneficiaries, or people you want to inherit these items.

You will need to estimate the value of tangible and intangible assets, so it’s helpful to include a recent property appraisal of your home and other items. However, in some cases, the exact value is unnecessary and a “best guess” estimation is sufficient.

Hire a Professional Estate Planner

Not everyone needs a legal professional to assist in the estate planning process. Even the American Bar Association acknowledges that in some situations — such as when a person has minimal assets solely in his or her name — it can be cost-effective to do it yourself or use an online service.

In general, however, the association advises against do-it-yourself estate planning, noting that the average person should “proceed with caution” when considering this option because there is too much is at stake.

“Mistakes made in the drafting of such an important document can profoundly alter familial relationships, leaving our family members at best confused or disappointed and at worst locked in hostile litigation,” the association notes on its website.

Financial experts encourage people with complex estates to consult a legal professional. Circumstances such as ownership of multimillion-dollar estates, second marriages, blended families, owning property outside the United State and personal business ventures should be reviewed by an attorney.

Other options exist if attorney fees are intimidating. Many states offer legal aid resources to reduce cost for qualifying low-income planners. Alternatively, you can ask a certified public accountant or tax professional for help or look for lawyers who advertise discounted bundle deals.

Be as prepared as possible if you do speak with an attorney. Get an estimate of how much it will cost to complete your estate plan. Many law firms provide a checklist of documents to bring to your first consultation. This saves time and, hopefully, a little money, too. Most estate planning attorneys can provide free consultations, flat-fee engagement agreements and free reviews of existing documents.

Estate Planning Terms You Should Know
Probate
A typically lengthy court review process that will distribute assets from the deceased individual to the beneficiaries chosen in their will. If there is no will, state law determines how property is distributed. This is also the legal forum for the legal contest of a will by interested parties. Some assets, such as life insurance with a living beneficiary, can pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process, but other assets can be harder to transfer outside of the probate estate.
Will
A document outlining who receives a person’s assets after death. Also known as a last will and testament. The will can also be used to nominate guardians for any minor children and to nominate a chosen executor or personal representative, who will usually hire the attorney who can help administer the probate process, among other things.
Executor
A person named in a will to carry out the terms of the document as it travels through probate.
Living Trust
A document in which another party, called a trustee, holds legal title to property and assets for beneficiaries. Assets are placed into the trust when the grantor is alive and can be distributed to beneficiaries before or after the grantor’s death. Usually, trusts can be used to remove the necessity for probate. Assets can be protected from the reach of creditors or other threats to the beneficiaries. The trust gives the grantor the ability to dictate more specifically how assets will transfer to a beneficiary or charity.
Financial Power of Attorney
This document appoints a trusted person to oversee the legal and fiscal affairs of another if he or she becomes incapacitated. It specifies exactly how much power an agent has. Power of attorney ends when the person granting power dies.

Wills and Living Trusts

A will is a legally binding document that specifies who receives your assets after you die. This document, also known as a last will and testament, ensures your wishes are carried out.

The document has no legal authority to control assets until after the testator passes away, and then, during a probate administration, it can only control how probate assets are transferred. Assets that pass outside of the probate estate are not controlled by the will.

Without a will, the state determines where your belongings go and who receives them, including choosing guardians for your children. This is determined by state statute and is called dying “intestate” or without a Last Will and Testament. Your beneficiaries will have no ability to change the manner in which those assets are distributed. Assets will generally be split evenly among your closest living family members.

Wills can be complex or simple. With few exceptions, every will is subject to probate, or a court review meant to prove a will is authentic. Probate can take months or even years.

What Should My Will Include?
  • The nomination of an executor, or an appointed person who oversees your estate as it travels through probate.
  • The nomination of a guardian for your minor children.
  • The names of any individuals or non-profit organizations to whom you wish to leave assets. These are called your beneficiaries.

When drafting your will, don’t forget about items or beneficiaries you’ve already accounted for. For example, you may have transferred cash into a charitable gift annuity as part of your planned giving. If you’ve been receiving income from this annuity, the payments will cease upon your death, and the charity will collect the remaining funds.

So, in this case, the charity has received your donation, and the stream of income the annuity provided will no longer be available to your heirs.

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Living Trusts

A living trust is another way to leave assets to beneficiaries.

A trust provides greater control than a will because you can stipulate specific requirements that beneficiaries must meet in order to receive assets. You can schedule period distributions based on important life events, such as graduating from college or marriage. You can also protect assets from passing to a beneficiary who may be in trouble with drugs or legal issues, while still providing the assets to be used for their benefit. You can get as creative as you want with trust conditions, provided that they do not break the law.

Living trusts can be revocable, meaning you maintain control of the assets and can freely change the trusts during your life, or irrevocable, which means you can’t make changes without the consent of the beneficiary and even then some changes cannot be made.

Revocable living trusts are far more common than irrevocable trusts, which serve fewer purposes. Most assets that are properly funded into a trust during life are protected from going through the probate process after death, which can save your beneficiaries time and money.

Power of Attorney

A will details what happens to your money and belongings after you’re no longer here. But what happens if you become incapacitated? Accidents and illness can render people unable to make important personal medical and financial decisions.

This is where advanced directives enter the picture.

Financial Power of Attorney

A financial power of attorney grants a person the authority to make legal and fiscal decisions on your behalf. Real estate, taxes, banking and business interests can all fall under this umbrella.

When executing this document, you are the “principal,” and the person you appoint is your “agent” or “attorney-in-fact.” You, the principal, decide exactly how much power the agent holds. For example, you can grant your agent access to your bank account while stipulating that he or she cannot invest on your behalf. Generally, this document grants your agent very broad powers, so it is imperative that you chose an agent whom you trust implicitly.

In order for this document to remain in effect if you become mentally incompetent, you must include language that makes it a durable power of attorney. If you don’t specify that the power of attorney is durable, your appointed agent won’t be authorized to make end-of-life decisions for you.

Estate and Inheritance Tax

Unless you are a multimillionaire, federal estate tax will not affect you, for now. Under 2019 tax code, you can transfer $11.4 million after you die without triggering federal tax. This is an increase from the $11.18 million cap that was in effect in 2018. Married couples can shield up to $22.8 million.

However, the federal estate tax only applies in the year that you pass away. So if the tax code is ever changed, and it has changed often over time, you may find yourself in a less advantageous tax situation in the future.

Federal estate tax was assessed on about 1,890 estates in 2018, down from 52,000 taxable estates in 2000, according to Forbes and Tax Policy Center.

Did You Know?
An estate must be worth at least $11.4 million to trigger federal estate tax.

At least 13 states and the District of Columbia leverage their own estate tax, many of which include asset thresholds that are lower than that of the federal government. These range between $1 million and $5.7 million.

Six states also levy inheritance tax. Inheritance tax must be paid by the heir, not the estate of the deceased. The amount an heir pays often depends on their relationship with the deceased. Spouses, for example, are exempt, but other relatives may pay higher rates.

Under the current tax code, wealthy people can limit their tax liability by using a grantor retained annuity trust, or GRAT. The GRAT allows for the gifting of assets without having to pay the estate taxes.

There are other strategies that will allow a living person to make use of some of their anticipated estate tax exemption now, without worrying about what the exemption will be in the year of their passing. Irrevocable trusts are one such strategy.

Important Documents

Knowing that you’re providing for your loved ones and caring for them even when you’re no longer with them offers a great sense of peace. You can enjoy your retirement years without the nagging worries about what you’ve left undone.

Refer to this complete checklist so you can be confident in your plan and in control of your estate.

First, gather these signed documents and keep them in a safe place.
  • Will
  • Trust
  • Advanced medical directive
  • Insurance policies
  • Retirement plans, 401(k) accounts and IRAs
  • Financial power of attorney

Leave copies with a trusted loved one, the executor of your will and your attorney. You can also place a copy in a fire-proof safe. Just make sure to give the combination to someone you trust. Some states will require an original will be deposited with the clerk of court upon your death, so the original will should be kept in a safe place.

Some experts advise storing these important documents with your estate papers:
  • Marriage, death, and adoption certificates
  • Deeds and mortgage contracts
  • Certificates for stocks, bonds and annuities
  • Account numbers and passwords
  • Recent investment and bank account statements
  • Debt information, including credit card statements, mortgages, taxes and loans
  • Safe deposit box information

Keep Your Estate Plan Updated

Once your estate plan is finalized, keep it updated. Bob Carlson, senior contributor to Forbes, suggests revisiting paperwork every three to five years. Major life changes are another opportunity to review your estate and make necessary revisions.

Times to Review Your Estate Plan
  • At the birth, adoption, or death of a child
  • After marriage, divorce, or separation
  • When you move to a new state
  • After major income changes
  • When there have been major changes to tax law
Please seek the advice of a qualified professional before making financial decisions.
Last Modified: September 18, 2020

11 Cited Research Articles

Annuity.org writers adhere to strict sourcing guidelines and use only credible sources of information, including authoritative financial publications, academic organizations, peer-reviewed journals, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports, court records and interviews with qualified experts. You can read more about our commitment to accuracy, fairness and transparency in our editorial guidelines.

  1. American Bar Association. (n.d.) Do It Yourself Estate Planning. Retrieved from: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/real_property_trust_estate/resources/estate_planning/diy_estate_planning/
  2. Caring.com. (n.d.). 2019 Survey Finds That Most People Believe Having a Will Is Important, but Less Than Half Have One. Retrieved from https://www.caring.com/caregivers/estate-planning/wills-survey/2019-survey/
  3. Carlson, B. (2018, December 2). 7 Reasons It's Time To Update Your Estate Plan. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/bobcarlson/2018/12/02/7-reasons-its-time-to-update-your-estate-plan/#27cbfd505ebf
  4. Civics 101: A Podcast. (2019, May 14). Episode: Life Stages – Death. Retrieved from: https://www.civics101podcast.org/civics-101-episodes/death
  5. CNN Money. (n.d.). Ultimate guide to retirement: What kinds of trusts are there? Retrieved from https://money.cnn.com/retirement/guide/estateplanning_trusts.moneymag/index2.htm
  6. Congress.gov. (1995, November 14). H. Rept. 104-336 Charitable Gift Annuity Relief Act of 1995. Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/congressional-report/104th-congress/house-report/336/1
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  8. Jones, J. (2016, May 18). Majority in U.S. Do Not Have a Will. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/191651/majority-not.aspx
  9. Khalfani-Cox, L. (n.d) Cost-Effective Wills: Online software and ready-made forms make creating your own will a snap. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/money/estate-planning/info-03-2011/cost-effective-wills.html
  10. Reeves, J. (2017, January). The Ultimate Guide to Estate Planning. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/money/budgeting-saving/info-2016/the-ultimate-guide-to-estate-planning.html
  11. Tax Policy Center. (2018, September 14). T18-0136 - Current Law Distribution of Gross Estate and Net Estate Tax by Size of Gross Estate, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/model-estimates/baseline-estate-tax-tables-sep-2018/t18-0136-current-law-distribution-gross-estate