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Sign These Papers

5 estate planning documents that Suze Orman recommends for every family 

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En español | I know you love your family. There’s not a thing you wouldn’t do to help them.

But I also know that what’s in your heart is not enough. At this stage of your life, preparing these must-have documents is one of the most profound acts of love you can bestow. This paperwork can shield your family from needless heartache, hassle and expense. The documents will give you and your family not just financial protection but peace of mind. 

Advance directive

An advance directive offers loved ones and medical professionals a road map for your health care. A living will, which is a type of advance directive, explains the treatment you’d like to have should you ever be unable to speak for yourself. Under what circumstances might you want doctors to stop trying to fix what ails you? When might you want pain relief, even if it hastens your death? You can spell that out now so your relatives won’t have to struggle with these decisions later. For the forms necessary in your state, go to aarp.org/advancedirectives.

Durable power of attorney for health care

This document, regularly included in an advance directive, lets you appoint someone ( plus a backup) to make medical choices on your behalf when you’re unable to do so.

Revocable living trust

Drawn up correctly, this makes it easy to keep control of your finances today, let a trusted person step in if necessary, and ensure fewer problems for your heirs when you die.

Now, if you just saw the word “trust” and thought, Oh, Suze, that’s just for rich people, you couldn’t be more wrong. A revocable living trust is an incredibly powerful document that can be a big help. You remain in control of all your finances as long as you want, and you can make changes to your trust as often as you want. That’s what “revocable” means.

To deal with the possibility that you become unable to manage your finances, the trust lets someone you’ve appointed take over (and specifies who gets to determine whether you’re incapacitated). This will save a loved one from the time-consuming inconvenience of getting the paperwork for handling your financial accounts.

And when you do die, your family will have an easier time passing assets in the trust to your beneficiaries. Otherwise, they’ll have to deal with probate, which can be a lengthy, sometimes expensive process if you die with a will only — or without a will.

Will

When you have a will, you can head off potential family squabbles (or worse) by clearly spelling out whom you want to inherit items that might not be in your trust — your home or car, for example, or even specific keepsakes such as your china or tool set. 

Durable financial power of attorney

Not all your financial assets can or should be in a living trust. If you’re alive yet incapacitated, the only way a trusted person, acting on your behalf, can access an IRA, pension or other financial account in your name is through a durable financial power of attorney. If you want your spouse to talk to your credit card company or the mortgage or utility folks and both your names aren’t on these accounts, the companies won’t speak to him or her without a durable financial power of attorney.

In addition, many brokerages and other financial institutions have their own power of attorney forms. So check to see if you’ll need those, too.

These five documents (sometimes four, when the advance directive and health care power of attorney are bundled together) help you live a happier, less stressful life, knowing you’ve taken the steps to make navigating tomorrow as smooth as possible. These documents are part of your legacy. By making your intentions clear and easing the inheritance process as much as you can, you’re taking care of your family.

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