Estate planning checklist: what do you need to know?
From getting your documents in order to noting your state’s estate tax laws, this article will provide you with a comprehensive estate planning checklist.
An estate plan is a lot more than just creating a will.
In order to prevent any surprises, it’s beneficial to communicate your wishes to your family and make them aware of the contents of your estate plan.
Many people believe estate planning is just for the wealthy, but everyone, regardless of wealth, can benefit from a good estate plan.
A financial advisor can help you build a comprehensive estate plan.
There are a few common misconceptions about estate planning. One of which is that drawing up a will is the only thing you have to do to create a solid estate plan.
While a will is the cornerstone of most estate plans, the process goes well beyond putting pen to paper.
Here is a comprehensive checklist of what you need to include to ensure your estate plan is up to standard:
1. Do an inventory
If you’re embarking on your estate planning journey, one of the first things you need to do is take stock.
List all of your tangible and intangible assets, including investments, retirement accounts, insurance policies, outstanding debts, valuable items (both financial and sentimental), real estate, and any other assets you can think of.
This is a good way to get a handle on what you own and can give you a solid foundation to work from when deciding what you would like to happen to these assets.
2. Write all your key documents
When creating an estate plan, you need to include a number of key estate planning documents:
A will – This is the main component of your estate plan and should include how you want your assets to be distributed upon your death, name your estate’s executor, and the guardians of your children if they are under 18.
Trusts – If you choose this route, a trust can transfer your assets according to your expressed wishes and set conditions.
Advance care directive – This document allows you to name an individual to make healthcare decisions for you should you become unable to do so.
Power of attorney – This document allows you to choose a person to handle all your financial and legal matters should you become unable to do so.
These four powerful legal documents will put you in the best position to plan your next steps by allowing you to dictate your specific wishes.
3. Get all your other documents in order
When a person passes away, there is a lot of documentation and paperwork to go through.
Finding life insurance policies and home insurance policies and closing bank accounts, credit cards, and phone contracts can be a drawn-out and exhausting process.
To make things easier for your family, it’s wise to keep all your important documents in one easy-to-find place.
Take note of policy numbers, the location of signed agreements, and a list of organizations you’re a member of.
This will help your family find any document they need, cancel any reoccurring payments and close accounts that are no longer required.
4. Review your beneficiaries
Many of your accounts and policies, such as your 401(k), will have designated beneficiaries. When you open these accounts, you state your beneficiary.
When writing your will and other estate planning documents, you need to ensure your beneficiaries line up across all your accounts.
If there is a conflict on the same account, for example, you named your spouse as your 401(k) beneficiary on your 401(k) account, but your will states your eldest child is the beneficiary, the beneficiary named on the retirement account takes precedence.
While this may not be an issue, should your circumstances change, it’s important to update your beneficiaries to ensure your assets go where you want them to.
5. Understand your state’s estate tax laws
One of the many advantages of estate planning is that it is a way to minimize the amount of estate and inheritance tax your family might have to pay.
With that being said, not all states impose these taxes.
Only one state imposes both estate and inheritance tax – Maryland. 11 states have estate tax: Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington state.
Onlyfive states have inheritance tax – Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
At a federal level, only those who pass a high threshold are liable to pay estate tax – for 2024, this threshold is $13.61 million.
6. Review your documents and wishes regularly
Life is full of ups and downs, and with that comes many changes.
It’s important to regularly review your estate plan to ensure your wishes remain the same.
This is especially true if you have gone through a big life change, such as a marriage, divorce, or you have added to your family. Changes in the law can also impact decisions you make.
It’s suggested you should review your plan every two years.
Get expert guidance
Unfortunately, estate planning isn’t a simple tick-the-box exercise. It takes time, a lot of planning and some hard decision-making.
If you need help with your estate planning, it's important to seek expert advice.
A good place to start is Unbiased. Here, you can get matched with an independent SEC-regulated financial advisor who can guide you in the right direction.
Senior Content Writer
Rachel is a Senior Content Writer at Unbiased. She has nearly a decade of experience writing and producing content across a range of different sectors.