You probably know you need to write a will to distribute your property and financial assets following your death. This is a good start, but for a comprehensive, complete estate plan, you’ll need a few more essential documents.
Other estate planning tools, such as a living trust and a power of attorney (POA) agreement, work in conjunction with your last will and testament to make sure your intentions are honored on all fronts. Without these additional documents, a probate court may have the final say over what happens to parts of your estate, a process that is both costly and potentially heartbreaking for your loved ones.
Before concluding that your estate plan is complete, be sure that you’ve determined whether you actually need all or some of the following estate planning documents to achieve your specific goals for your plan:
1. Last will and testament
When drafted according to your home state’s laws, your will is a binding legal document that tells a probate court how to follow your final wishes. Every will needs an executor – whether it’s a family member, friend, or trusted professional like an attorney – to oversee the management of your assets after your death. This person will pay your final debts and expenses, file estate taxes, and make distributions to your named beneficiaries. They will also distribute items from your tangible property list to named beneficiaries if you leave such a list.
2. Revocable living trust
While you still always need a will, many estate planning attorneys recommend distributing some property via a revocable living trust. A trustee of your choosing will manage the assets titled into the name of your trust (before and after your death) – without court interference – on behalf of the beneficiary you designate. If you decide to add a living trust to your estate plan, then you can have a very simple will that functions as what’s called a “pour-over will,” to allow your executor to merely serve to transfer to the control of your trustee and your trust any assets that you did not title in the trust prior to your death, did not name the trust as the beneficiary of prior to your death, or did not name a living person to receive at your death.
3. Durable general power of attorney and durable medical power of attorney
The person(s) you name in your power of attorney agreements are the ones who have the legal right to make financial and healthcare decisions for you if you become incapacitated during your lifetime. Your POA agents should be individuals whom you trust to act in your best interest if you are mentally or physically unable to communicate your intentions.
4. Beneficiary designations: Guidance on Non-Probate Planning
Most people know that for assets such as retirement plans and insurance policies, you need to fill out the beneficiary designation forms provided by the company that holds your account. Forms for such assets supersede your will instructions, so always keep them up-to-date, especially if you’ve had any recent major life changes. However, you can do this with many other types of assets and are encouraged to seek guidance on doing so as part of a comprehensive estate plan.
5. Legal guardianship designation
If you have minor children, you’ll need to choose a trusted legal guardian to care for them if you become disabled or die before they are of age. It’s wise to have this discussion with your potential guardian before naming them in your estate plans. If you don’t, the process can be costly and stressful for the children and family members to deal with, including home visits, possible foster family care, and court appearance to have someone appointed guardian.
Optional: Letter of intent
Although it’s not considered a legally valid estate planning document, you may want to create a letter of intent to guide your estate executor with specific instructions to follow upon your death, including potential funeral arrangements. Such letters could be a good way to communicate your final burial wishes or the reasons for making certain gifts to certain beneficiaries. Lastly, such letters might also help a probate court interpret your will and intentions if any part of it is called into question.
Need estate planning forms? Speak with your attorney.
Not sure where to begin with your estate plan documentation? The The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. can help. We have been assisting Northern Virginia families with their estate planning needs since 2001.
Contact us today to learn how we can help you create the best plan for your family’s future, and ensure that all the necessary forms are complete and legally sound.