Guide to estate planning

Make sure your loved ones are taken care of when you're no longer around to do it.

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While it might be an awkward or even painful topic to think about and discuss, making a plan to set out what will happen if you die or become incapacitated is crucial — for both you and your loved ones.

Download a printable PDF estate planning checklist

What is estate planning?

Estate planning involves developing a strategy to deal with your assets and investments when you pass away. Its aim is to provide peace of mind for you and your loved ones when you die, ensuring that your assets are passed on to your beneficiaries in the most simple and effective way.

What can estate planning handle?

A thorough estate plan will include:

  • Making a will (this is an official document that records the distribution of assets)
  • Taking out life insurance
  • Naming an executor of your estate or trustee
  • Appointing power of attorney, or someone to conduct your affairs if you are unable to do so
  • Filing an advance medical directive, or instructions on your wishes regarding medical treatment if you’re mentally incapacitated or unable to communicate
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How do I start estate planning?

The estate planning process can be broken down into a few simple steps:

  1. Take stock of your assets. Create a list of all your personal assets, as well as other assets that form part of your estate, such as trusts, stocks or life insurance.
  2. Identify risks. Identify any potential risks you want to plan around before and after your death, such as divorce, mental incapacity or your early death.
  3. Create a plan. Work with your lawyer, accountant and/or financial planner to work out an estate plan that is tailored to your needs and incorporates all your assets.

For help developing a comprehensive estate plan that covers all necessary issues, it’s recommended that you seek independent legal advice. Your lawyer will be able to help you get started and provide expert advice tailored to your personal needs.

Preparing a will

A will is a critical legal document that outlines your wishes for the distribution of your assets after your death. By creating a clear and unambiguous will you can:

  • Ensure that your assets are distributed to the right people
  • Provide instructions on who will look after your children
  • Establish trusts to distribute assets among your beneficiaries more effectively
  • Donate money to charity
  • Provide instructions for your funeral

If you die without a will or with an invalid will, this is known as dying intestate. When this happens, each state has its own laws regarding how your assets will be distributed. Though those assets will usually be distributed to your family members, this allocation may go against your final wishes.

With this in mind, it’s essential that you create a will and update it regularly to reflect any changes to your legal rights.

Who’s involved once I pass away?

When you create your will, you’ll be required to nominate your executor. The executor’s role is to carry out your wishes as specified in your will, and they have the power to administer the estate.

Depending on your personal circumstances, others may also be involved. For example, if you establish a testamentary trust in your will, you will also appoint a trustee whose job is to administer that trust.

Finding a life insurance policy

When choosing a life insurance policy, you’ll need to consider:

  • Your dependents. Who relies on you for financial support? This can include children, your spouse and other family members or loved ones.
  • Their timeline. How long until your dependents will be financially independent? For example, if you have young children, you may want a policy that will be able to support them until they graduate college.
  • Your debts. Any outstanding debts, such as your mortgage, car loan, student loans or credit card balances, will likely need to be paid before any money is passed on to your loved ones.
  • Your income. Consider both how much you can afford to pay and how much your family depends on. For example, if you currently make $100,000 a year, a $50,000 life insurance policy doesn’t give your family much time to adjust to the loss of your income.

How can a will or estate plan benefit me?

There are several important benefits to estate planning, including:

  • Peace of mind. The biggest benefit of estate planning is the peace of mind it provides, ensuring that your hard-earned assets will be distributed according to your wishes.
  • Financial support for the people you care about. By developing a comprehensive estate plan, you can guarantee that your assets go to the right people.
  • Eliminates disputes. A clear will and a good estate plan will help your loved ones avoid arguments, disputes and even messy legal battles about the fair distribution of your assets.
  • Tax-effective. With help from legal and financial professionals, you can distribute your assets in a way that minimizes the tax obligations your heirs will face.
  • More than just money. Estate planning is about much more than just dividing up your finances; it also allows you to ensure that you receive the medical care you want, that your children are properly cared for if you die unexpectedly and even that you’re given the funeral you want.

While estate planning might seem like a morbid and gloomy task, don’t put it off. If you think about it and take action now, you can save your loved ones a plenty of stress and heartache in the future.

Estate planning checklist

Bottom line

Creating a new estate plan can require a bit of time and paperwork, but it’s necessary to make sure your wishes are honored and your loved ones are taken care of. Once you have the framework, it’ll be much easier to make adjustments as needed — and you’ll be able to rest easy knowing that you have a plan in place for your loved ones.

To make sure your family is taken care of after you pass, consider taking out a life insurance policy to provide for them when you’re no longer able.

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