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Estate Planning Documents

The Cornerstones of an Estate Plan

It’s never too early to prepare essential estate planning documents, but it can be too late. A very high percentage of people – even retirees – don’t have estate plans and many more who do have documents that are out of date. Don’t wait until it’s too late, because when it comes to a will and other estate planning documents, when it’s too late, it’s too late.

Here are the four documents every adult should have:

  • A will. This legal document tells who will manage your estate, who will get your belongings, and, if applicable, who will become guardian of your minor children or other disabled family members after you die. Die without a will and the state makes these decisions—often at an added cost to those you love most.
  • Durable power of attorney. This delegates the power to legally handle your financial affairs should you become disabled or incapacitated. Without this, no one may be able to access your bank account, securities, or any other property in your name without lengthy legal proceedings. 
  • Advance directive is a catch-all term that refers to health care directives, living wills, health care (medical) powers of attorney, and other personalized directives. All of these documents allow you express legally your preference for continued health care should you become terminally ill. A health care power of attorney (also called a "designation of health care surrogate") names a spouse or trusted relative to make health care decisions for you in case you are physically or mentally incapable of doing so on your own.
  • Letter of instructions. A "letter of instructions" is an informal document that gives your survivors information concerning important financial and personal matters that must be attended to after your demise. You don’t need an attorney to prepare it. Although it doesn’t carry the legal weight of a will and is in no way a substitute for a will, a letter of instructions clarifies any special requests to be carried out upon death. It also provides essential financial information, thus relieving the family of needless worry and speculation. Just as with all your other estate planning documents, be sure your loved ones know where your letter of instructions is located.

Use an attorney or do-it-yourself?

While you can prepare these documents yourself,  it’s far preferable to have an attorney do so. It won’t cost very much, and once it’s done, it’s pretty much done unless your situation changes. The advantage of having an attorney is that you can check in periodically with him or her to make sure your docs are OK, and the attorney could remind you of any relevant changes in the regulations that you may otherwise not be aware of.

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