You Shouldn’t Be Without
Each estate plan is as unique as the person
making the plan, but there are some common
categories of documents that should be found in
every estate plan
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Deborah A. Sexton
Despite the fact that most people realize the need for an estate plan, a shocking 60
percent of Americans do not have one. The reasons people give for why they have yet
to sit down and create an estate plan are varied and numerous; however, the reason
often boils down to the fact that people don’t understand estate planning and,
therefore, simply don’t know where to start.
Of course, each estate plan is as unique as the person making the plan, but there are some common
categories of documents that should be found in every estate plan. In addition, there are some
documents within each category that are frequently found in an estate plan. Each of these documents
will make the process of probating your estate less costly and less time consuming and/or will make
decisions in the event you become incapacitated much easier.
Last Will and Testament
Your will is the foundation upon which your entire estate plan
is built. Your will directs how your assets will be gifted upon
your death and/or references other important documents that
further direct gifting. Your will also appoints your executor and
can nominate a guardian for minor children.
Letter of Instruction Trusts
This is an informal letter that provides Today, a large percentage of estate plans
important information to your family or loved include at least one trust. A trust can also be as
ones regarding your estate. It can include simple as a pet trust that provides for the
something as simple as how to winterize your family dog to a complicated charitable split-
house to something as complex as interest trust that is funded with millions of
instructions regarding where assets are dollars.
hidden or documents kept.
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Proof of Ownership
Deeds to real property – even if the property will pass without the need to go through
probate, make sure the original deed can be located.
Stocks, bonds and investment accounts – along with original certificates, create and
include a list of accounts, where the account is held, account number and any necessary
codes or passwords needed to access the account.
Partnership agreements, corporation documents – if you have an ownership interest in a
business be sure to include the operating agreements as well as any buy-sell agreements
or other relevant legal documents pertaining to the business.
Family and personal medical
history – this can be helpful in the
event of your sudden
Living Will – this allows you to
determine ahead of time what
types of medical treatments you
want and which ones you will
refuse in the event that you
become terminally ill.
Durable Healthcare Power of Attorney – this allows you to appoint someone to make
healthcare decisions for you if you become incapacitated.
Authorization to release medical history – federal law prevents access to your healthcare
information by anyone but you and those whom you authorize. By completing an
authorization ahead of time, you will make it easier for loved ones to handle insurance
matters if the need arises.
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Life Insurance and Retirement
Life insurance policies
Individual Retirement Accounts
Pre-paid funeral contract – if you have pre-paid for your funeral and burial, keep the
contract and proof of payment in this folder.
Funeral trust – creating a funeral trust is a popular method for handling funeral
arrangements. Not only can you make clear your wishes, but many people choose to fund
the trust with a life insurance policy that pays out into the trust, making the issue of cost a
non-issue for grieving family members and loved ones.
Personal Memorandum – even if you did not pre-arrange and/or pre-pay for your funeral
and burial, you can still take the time to create a personal memorandum that sets forth
what your wishes are. Although not legally binding in most states, it will help your loved
ones make important decisions at a highly emotional time.
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Digital Assets Power of Attorney
Online banking – create a list of all Childcare POA – this is something you
bank accounts or investment accounts should keep on hand if you have
that you access online. In addition, minor children. In the event that you
provide your log-in name and are away on business or vacation and
password for each one. someone else is caring for them, a
childcare POA will give the caregiver
Social Media – create a list of social
the legal authority to consent to
media accounts that you use such as
emergency medical treatment if the
Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Include
need ever arises.
log-in information, passwords and
instructions for how to handle the Limited POA – this can be used to
account if you die or become appoint someone as your agent for
incapacitated. specific purchases such as to facilitate
the sale of a vehicle while you are out
Bills – if you pay bills online, or if bills
are set to be paid automatically, include
them on this list. As with other digital Durable general POA – this is a very
assets, also include log-in and powerful document as it gives your
passwords. appointed agent the legal authority to
act on your behalf in almost all
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Each of these documents serves a specific purpose within your estate plan; however,
understanding each document’s individual function is not enough.
Many of these documents also work in concert with other documents in your estate plan. A life
insurance policy, for example, might be transferred into a funeral trust which includes your wishes as
expressed in your personal memorandum. By working with an experienced estate planning attorney
you can ensure that all of your documents work in harmony with one another to maximize the
available benefits and minimize your tax exposure as well as the possibility of a challenge to your
Forbes, 5 Key Estate Planning Documents to Help Avoid Family Conflicts
AARP, The Cornerstones of an Estate Plan
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This free report highlights the following:
1. What Estate Planning documents are right for your specific needs
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