If your goal is to make sure your family is taken care of when you’re gone—and you don’t want them to deal with any complicated processes or make any difficult decisions during a period of mourning—you need to have a solid estate plan in place that clearly details your final wishes.
Unfortunately, a 2017 study found that just 40 percent of U.S. adults had a will or living trust. This failure to plan ahead can create quite the headache for families when the time comes.
The good news is that by taking a proactive stance toward estate planning and making sure all your ducks are in a row well in advance, you can avoid the kinds of problems that can tear families apart when they should be comforting one another.
What Should I Include in My Estate Plan?
Everyone’s financial situation is different, and everyone has a different idea as to how they’d like to see their assets dispersed when they’re no longer around. By deciding to create an estate plan, you minimize doubt from the equation and ensure that your loved ones know exactly where you want your wealth to go.
But you can’t just snap your fingers and end up with the perfect estate plan. You need to do your due diligence and put together a robust plan that covers every corner of your finances and desires.
With that in mind, here are four critical elements that your estate plan should include. Consider this your estate planning checklist
1. Contact information
The last thing you want is your loved ones digging through your personal files to find things such as phone numbers and email addresses while they’re still grieving.
You can avoid such a scenario by making sure that your estate plan includes all of the contact information that your family will need to get through the period. Make sure that your heirs know how to contact the folks who are involved in your financial and legal affairs, including financial advisors, business partners, CPAs, estate planning attorneys, bankers, and insurance agents. The same goes for any clients you might have in case they owe you money, or vice versa.
What’s more, you’ll also want to include the contact information of other important people in your life—friends, doctors, barbers, landscapers, and what have you. This way, you can ensure that the people in your life know what happened to you and have the chance to pay their respects.
Once you’ve consolidated all of this information, you can either keep paper copies of it or store it securely on your computer or in the cloud. For the best results, you might be better off keeping both hard copies and digital copies of this information. That way, in the event that your house burns down, for example, this information will still be backed up.
2. Important documents
You should also include a score of important documents that will help your family easily navigate your affairs. Otherwise, your loved ones might have to search endlessly for things such as real estate deeds and car titles.
To make things easier on your family, be sure to put the following documents aside when putting together your estate plan:
- Real estate deeds
- Car titles
- Powers of attorney
- Business succession plans
- Financial portfolio information
- Insurance contracts
- Safe deposit box key, bank name, and box number
- Letters and notes detailing who should receive personal belongings
Make copies of your documents to ensure that—in the event that something is lost or misplaced—your family doesn’t have to start from scratch when trying to tie up loose ends.
3. Instructions on how to access important information
Maybe you have a wall safe behind a painting in your office that’s filled with important information. Or maybe you have documentation spread out across multiple safety deposit boxes.
Even if you store all of your important documents in a regular old filing cabinet, you need to include instructions so your loved ones can find your birth certificate, your Social Security card, your driver’s license, your passport, and more. You may also want to include login credentials for your investment and banking accounts; documentation pertaining to retirement accounts, annuities, and life insurance; alarm codes; keys to your house; and safe codes, among other things.
Figure out how someone who is not you might go about gathering all of your important information and write down detailed instructions to make sure no stones are left unturned.
4. Final wishes
Do you want to be buried or cremated? Do you have a final resting place in mind? How would you like your memorial service to be? What would you like your obituary to highlight about your life? What do you want to happen to your pets? Do you want to leave behind personal letters for the important people in your life—your kids, your grandkids, your friends, your business partners?
Only you know the answers to these questions. Be sure to relay those answers to your loved ones so that they aren’t second-guessing themselves.
Now that you have a better idea of what to include in your estate plan, let’s turn our attention to the other side of the coin and briefly examine mistakes you would be wise to avoid.
Mistakes to Avoid When Putting Together Your Estate Plan
Unless you’re a cat who’s on their ninth life, this is your first time putting together an estate plan. Just because that may be the case doesn’t mean you have to start out from a blank slate. By learning from other people’s mistakes, you can avoid putting together a plan that doesn’t live up to your expectations.
Here are some of the most common estate planning mistakes we’ve seen—and ones that you’d be wise to avoid.
1. Doing everything on your own
Some people think that just because they know their estate better than anyone else, it follows that they should be the sole person responsible for putting together their estate plan.
No matter how successful you’ve been in your life or in your career, chances are that you’re not an estate planning attorney. Instead of rolling the dice on something so important and thinking that you will dot every i and cross every t, you will be better off working with a professional who has helped countless individuals like you put together estate plans that let them sleep comfortably at night over the years.
2. Not understanding the plan
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who hire estate planners and become completely hands-off themselves. Instead of taking matters into their own hands, they trust that the planner will button everything up exactly the way they want them to.
This is not an approach you should consider taking. The last thing you want is for your family to find out the hard way that your estate plan isn’t as robust as you let on when you’re not around to fix it.
3. Not updating your plan over time
Things change over time. Business partners, clients, family members, and friends die. Charities and causes you wish to support evolve. Tax laws are updated every year. The list goes on and on.
One of the major pitfalls in estate planning occurs when people put together plans and then fail to revisit them periodically. To make sure that your plan helps you achieve your goals, be sure to check in on your plan at regular intervals—say, every six months or so—to make sure that everything is exactly how you want it to be.
Need Help with Your Estate Plan?
If you’re looking for an extra set of eyes to review your estate plan—or you don’t know where to start even after going through our estate planning checklist—you’ve come to the right place.
Before you begin getting your affairs in order, check out this estate planning questionnaire, which provides a great overview of the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask the professionals you enlist to help draw up your plans. If you’re just getting started, check out our recent webinar, “Basics of Estate Planning,” to learn more about the ins and outs of estate plans, the differences between a will and a trust, the role taxes play in estate planning, and more.
Here’s to putting together an estate plan that makes sure your family is taken care of and the causes you care about are supported when you’re gone!
EP Wealth Advisors (“EPWA”) makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy, timeliness, suitability, completeness, or relevance of any information presented in this report. EPWA has used its best efforts to verify the data included in this report. The information presented was obtained from sources deemed to be reliable. However, EPWA cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information offered. The content of this report is subject to change without notice.
An estate plan is a helpful tool that can assist individuals in managing and arranging affairs in the event of death or incapacity. However, the scope and extent of the plan varies depending on the unique circumstances and desires of the individual client. It is for this reason, that the analysis encompassed herein is not intended to be comprehensive in nature nor should it be interpreted as legal advice. Please consult a legal professional to determine the extent, scope, and the drafting and creation of the appropriate estate documents. EP Wealth Advisors is not in the business of providing legal advice or preparing legal documents. Our review is limited to and in association with Financial Planning only.
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