Estate planning 101

What you need to know about planning for the unexpected

Part of ensuring your affairs are handled as you intend in the future is getting the right documents in order. And there’s no better way to get a handle on something that feels overwhelming than to make a list. So, we’ve created this collection of the key documents you’ll want to ensure your wishes are carried out.

  • Last Will and Testament (will). This is the obvious one. Creating a will ensures the people and causes you care about are taken care of.
  • Advance Health Care Directive (AHCD). You can request this form at hospitals and most doctors’ offices. It designates a person of your choice to make healthcare decisions for you if you’re unable to speak for yourself. This includes instructions on issues like pain management and organ donation.
  • Physician's Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST). This form replaces a DNR (do not resuscitate) order, and is completed by a doctor based on your wishes if you have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. It is not in effect in all states (you can find out about yours here).
  • Durable Financial Power of Attorney. This allows a designated person to access your finances, such as your investments, checking account, and property in order to pay bills.
  • Final arrangements to leave instructions for your cremation or burial.
  • “Payable on Death” Beneficiary forms. To avoid funds going through probate, some assets such as investments, insurance, retirement plans, and bank accounts can be designated to a specified beneficiary at time of death.
  • Insurance policies for life, health, car, and home.
  • Proof of identity and relationships, including Social Security card, birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates, prenuptial agreements, divorce settlements, and any Armed Forces discharge papers.
  • Financial information. To make managing your finances as painless as possible, it’s a good idea to organize the information on your bank accounts, credit cards, mortgages, loans, tax returns, pension plans, retirement benefits, and investment portfolios.
  • Titles and deeds, including for real estate and vehicles.
  • Living trust. This document places your assets into a trust, which is then transferred to designated beneficiaries at the end of your lifetime. As long as assets have been diligently transferred into the trust over the course of your life, having a living trust can help to avoid probate, thus speeding up proceedings at death. It’s created instead of a legal will, and is most important in states like California, where the probate process is longer and more expensive than in other states.

Once you’ve created or collected all of these documents, it’s smart to keep them organized in one safe place, and make sure the key people in your life know where to find them. Pat yourself on the back — getting such items in order infinitely eases what can be a messy process at the end of life.