Lisa Westerman's Blog
The last thing your family needs is to have no idea where to find your important papers and last wishes when confronted with a sudden illness or death. No one wants to talk about these things but taking the time to organize your paperwork can give your loved ones true peace of mind when dealing with your estate. Here are the top essential documents to keep handy and why you should do it now.
Living revocable trust: This document allows you to retain control of your assets while you are still living but enables a trustee that you appoint to transfer your assets to your trust beneficiaries without going through probate. If you don’t have one, your estate must go through probate. Anything that is not correctly added to the trust will still have to go through the probate process, so make sure you keep it up to date, and that ownership and titles of all assets (homes, vehicles, accounts) are transferred out of your name and into the name of the trust.
A living will: Also called an advanced directive, a living will is a statement of your end-of-life medical treatment desires if you become terminally ill, incapacitated, or cannot speak for yourself. Without one, state law determines who has the legal right to make these decisions for you. Typically, it is in the order of closest relationship, but if, for example, the children are next in order but cannot, as siblings, agree, your situation could end up being decided by a court. A living will protects your family from having to make these decisions.
Healthcare POA: A power of attorney (POA) is a document allowing someone else that you trust to have the final say about your medical care when you are incapacitated. It works alongside the living will to carry out your wishes.
Financial POA: Your financial accounts can only be handled by someone else if you’ve given them permission to do so. The legal document is a financial power of attorney. Many financial institutions have their own POA forms that you can complete and send in to them. Without a financial POA, no one can pay your bills or even buy your groceries from your accounts, meaning that you might leave loved ones with debts you intended to pay. It is important to note, however, that a financial POA is only in force while you remain alive. At your death, your will, trust, and designated beneficiary documents take over.
List of Financial Accounts: Often, your family does not know what accounts you have. Create a list of your accounts that includes the institution (with address and telephone number), account number, beneficiaries, and any automatic withdrawals that come from the account (including payee and amount. Also, keep a list of all insurance accounts, retirement accounts, and annuity accounts with the same information. It is essential to list the beneficiaries clearly and if possible, their social security numbers and relationship to you, so that there is no question if you meant Suzy your niece or Suzy your great-granddaughter.
Marriage License: A copy of your marriage license (especially if you’ve been married more than once, is essential so that there is no question about transfer of ownership to a surviving spouse. Without it, your spouse will have to order one from the county or country where you married, which could take several days to more than a month. Until then, your spouse may not be able to claim rights and benefits.
Divorce Decree: In the same way, copies of divorce decrees protect your current spouse from any claims by a prior spouse.
Tax Return (most recent)
Letter of Intent: Your executor needs clear instructions about the management and distribution of your estate. Along with the legal form, a list of significant items you want to be designated to specific persons should be attached.
Funeral Arrangements: Clearly identify the type of memorial service you prefer. Also, define if you prefer burial or cremation, and any specifics about where and how you want your remains taken care of, including if you own a burial plot or niche. While this document is not legal, it gives your families the assurance that they are following your wishes.
Will: Usually, this is including with your living trust, but if you have assets outside the trust, your will specifies how your executor should distribute your assets after your death.
Plan for Business Succession: If you own a business, it is vital that you have a business succession plan in place. This plan outlines who will be in control of your business if you become incapacitated, and when you die. Without it, your business operations and your employees could suffer. It should be separate from your personal trust, with its own appointed trustee that has knowledge about how your business operates that can keep it running.
If you don’t have some of these items in place and need a referral to legal representation, reach out to your local bar association for a list of qualified estate attorneys near you.