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Estate-planning essentials

Jun 4, 2020
Empower Insights

The documents you need to help ensure your final wishes are carried out

The coronavirus pandemic likely has you spending more time at home. Many have taken the opportunity to get organized, whether cleaning out closets or decluttering kitchen drawers. This period also offers an opportunity to make important decisions about your future, including estate plans. Getting a jump-start on crucial documents — such as a will or an advance directive — can help ensure your wishes are carried out should something happen to you at any age.

Understanding what all is involved in estate-planning is an important part of this process. Here’s a look at some of the items you should consider:

A will

Perhaps the primary estate-planning document you’ll need, a will guides the distribution of your assets after you die and delegates certain responsibilities. A will lays out which family, friends or organizations get what assets. It also typically includes a designation for an executor — a trusted family member, lawyer or bank — who can make sure your instructions are followed. If you have a minor child or an adult with special needs in your care, you can identify a guardian to take legal responsibility after your death. If you fail to appoint a guardian, a court may name one for you.

Without a will, your estate could go through probate when you die, meaning the courts will decide how to distribute your assets. Probate can be a lengthy and potentially expensive process. A will ensures that your heirs have quicker access to your assets.

While you can write a will on your own, it’s generally wiser to enlist the help of an estate attorney.

Beneficiary designations

Financial accounts such as retirement accounts, life insurance policies and annuities allow you to name a beneficiary who will receive those assets upon your death. Beneficiaries can include spouses, children, other family members, trusts and charities. (Note that if you are married and want to name a non-spouse as your beneficiary on a retirement account, your spouse must sign a waiver.) Be sure to keep designations on all accounts up to date as your circumstances change — if you get divorced or have a child, for example.

Estate planning essentials: will, beneficiary destination and advance directive

Power of attorney

A power of attorney is a legal document that allows another person of your choosing to make legal decisions on your behalf if you die or become incapacitated. You can define which decisions this person can make — typically those related to property, finances and/or medical care.

Advance directive

Advance directives — including medical powers of attorney and living wills — are written, legal instructions for your medical care should you become unable to make decisions yourself. They give doctors and caregivers instructions about what to do if you’re terminally ill, seriously injured, in a coma or in the late stages of dementia. No matter your age, an advance directive can help ensure you get the care you want while relieving your family and caregivers of the responsibility of making difficult choices during a crisis.

Requirements for creating an advance directive vary by state. They can often be created without the help of a lawyer, but they may need to be signed by a witness or notarized.

Once your advance directive is completed, give a copy of it to your doctor and relevant family members. Store it together with your other important estate-planning documents. Keep all such documents in a safe place, and tell trusted family or friends where they can find them.

Personal Capital has an Estate-Planning Primer that may provide you with more information about trusts and estates.

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