Life conversations: estate planning checklist

End of life planning is often a difficult topic to discuss, especially with your family. However, without proper estate planning in place, many families can be left in the dark during a challenging time. These decisions impact more than investments and assets—they also matter when it comes to unforeseen health issues.

Taking the time to plan now will help give you confidence that everything is in order, and ensure the details around the management of your estate will be carried out efficiently and in the manner you want.

1. Collect relevant documents

First, gather all the necessary documents. These should include any titles to physical assets, deeds to properties, birth and marriage certificates, and your burial plot information. (You should also be sure to gather any estate planning documents currently in place, such as wills and financial/medical power of attorney documents, as well as insurance policies and information on retirement account beneficiaries.) Also, be sure to have the name and contact information for your doctors, lawyers, accountants, financial advisor and insurance broker. Having all these documents at the ready and making sure your family knows where they are and how to access them will also help streamline the estate planning process.

2. Secure your assets and documents

Most people are fully digital today, which means very few people will have access to your accounts. You can note your account information and keep it in a safe place. Pick a person who will have access to your account information, not just on banking and investment accounts, but bill pay, social media and other websites, as well.

Having copies of all of your important documents is critical. It's also important to store them safely; this might include a fire-proof safe deposit box that a trusted person has access to. You can also make electronic copies of documents that are sent to advisors and loved ones.

3. Execute a will

Creating a will is one of the most important things you can do when it comes to estate planning. A will addresses how you would like your property to be distributed and who is going to be in charge of managing your estate. If you don't make a will, you're leaving decisions up to the estate laws of the state where you live, and the result could differ from your intentions.

4. Create a revocable living trust

This document may ensure that your assets can be distributed quickly to your beneficiaries in the manner you've outlined.

A revocable trust allows you to keep control over property that is placed within the trust during your lifetime. You should name a successor trustee who will control the trust upon your death. If all of your assets are held in the trust at your death, asset distribution—according to your instructions—should run smoothly, which may avoid probate and save angst, time and money.

5. Name a power of attorney

A power of attorney names the person who is going to make decisions for you in the case you cannot make them for yourself.

This could be a durable healthcare power of attorney to cover health decisions and a durable financial power of attorney to cover financial decisions.

6. Create a 'living will'

It’s also essential to create a "living will," also known as an advance directive. Unfortunately, medical emergencies happen, and in the event you are incapacitated or unable to make decisions, a living will can express your desires on end-of-life treatment preferences. A living will should also address your preferences on the continuation or discontinuation of care when it comes to medical treatments, including breathing or feeding tubes.

You can also include a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) authorization, which allows your chosen representative to speak with healthcare professionals about your private and protected medical records.

7. Check your beneficiaries

Always check your plans to ensure your beneficiaries are up to date, especially if you lose a spouse, are divorced or remarried. Remember, your final will does not control who your beneficiaries are on your life insurance, pensions or retirement accounts.  In fact, designated beneficiaries override a will, so both should reflect your current wishes.

Also, note if you have a joint tenancy with right of survivorship (JTWROS) account. The setup of a JTWROS means that upon your death all assets will automatically transfer to the surviving person.1 It's a good practice to review these when there are changes in your family situation.

8. Plan your final arrangements

Provide a loved one or your estate administrator with the information on what should happen immediately after your death. That should include your funeral or cremation plans, your potential organ donor designation, as well as any pay on death accounts you might have that will help defray funeral costs.

9. Review frequently

Many people run into problems when it's discovered they haven't updated wills or a power of attorney in years. Avoid this by setting a date on your calendar to review and make any changes to your documents.

10. Communicate with loved ones

While it's important to gather all the necessary forms and create new documents, it's also crucial to speak about your wishes with your loved ones. It might be a hard conversation to have, but it's for the best to ensure everyone is on the same page and your plans are followed.

Bonus: Build a team

When it comes to estate planning, it's always a good idea to have a team of advisors to help. You can consult with an estate planning attorney, your wealth advisor and your accountant to make sure all of your questions are answered and your documents prepared.

Estate planning can be stressful, but having a plan in place ahead of time can help ensure your family is taken care of and your wishes are met exactly as you intended.