Plan for the Future

The Basics of Estate Planning

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For most of us, having an “estate plan” usually conjures up images of the rich and famous leaving behind sprawling mansions and countless millions to their heirs. The fact of the matter is that everyone needs an estate plan to protect their legacy and provide for their loved ones. This estate planning checklist will help you understand the basics.

Leave behind your legacy.

We’ll all leave behind some type of legacy to our loved ones — whether it’s our personal belongings, property or impact on society. An estate plan allows us to remain in control of that legacy.

Who needs an estate plan? Anyone who:

  • Has a spouse, partner, children and or grandchildren.
  • Has an elderly parent or family member with special needs.
  • Owns property, such as a house, a car or real estate.
  • Has assets in investments, bank accounts or retirement plans.
  • Owns a business.
  • Has family heirlooms or belongings they want loved ones to have.

The importance of having a plan

Creating an estate plan simply means making sure your assets go where you want them to go long after you pass on. It also means making sure your wishes are honored while you're still here, should you become unable to make decisions yourself.

If you don’t have an estate plan, there are several compelling reasons to consider getting important updated estate planning documents in place. The purpose of an estate plan is to help:

  • Prevent disputes and ease decision-making for your heirs, which can reduce the stress, confusion, disputes and questions they may encounter during a difficult time.
  • Minimize estate taxes, court costs and unnecessary legal fees for your loved ones.
  • Avoid the added time and costs associated with going through probate.
  • Ensure that your preferences about life-prolonging medical care are honored.
  • Indicate your wishes for funeral arrangements and costs.

Where do you begin?

Some estate plans can be complex while others are more straightforward. Because it can involve some tricky rules and laws, it's best to have an estate planner — a qualified estate planning attorney — involved who can help walk you through the process and make smart choices.

A good place to start is by taking inventory of your assets, which include your real estate, investments, retirement savings, insurance policies and business interests. Then it’s time to determine several documents, issues and processes you’ll want to consider as part of your plan, including:


Your will outlines where you want your assets to go (and when). If you die without a will, you have no say over who inherits your property. Instead, your state decides how your assets are divided up and passed on (known as dying "intestate"). A will is also the place to name guardians for your minor children.

Health care advance directive

This document names who will make health care decisions, including end-of-life care decisions, if you're unable to make decisions for yourself. In some states these are also known as health care powers of attorney, living will, designations of surrogates or proxies, or HIPAA designation of personal representative.


Trusts allow you to put conditions around how and when your assets will be distributed after you pass away. A trust can reduce estate taxes, protect property and avoid a lengthy probate – the official proving of a will.

Powers of attorney

There are different types of power of attorney, but the main two include:

  • Durable power of attorney lets you delegate your right to make legal and financial decisions to someone else upon your incapacitation. This can relate to matters around real estate, taxes, banking and finances.
  • Health care power of attorney gives a person you trust the ability to make medical decisions on your behalf if you're unable to do so.


Generally, assets you own or control are part of your taxable estate. When putting together a plan, consider federal and state laws governing estate taxes – and strategies for avoiding or minimizing them.


Probate, the official proving of a will, typically involves inventorying personal property, appraisals, paying debts and/or taxes and distributing property as your will (or state law) dictates.

We hope this guide to estate planning 101 has been helpful. Of all the great reasons why it’s essential to create an estate plan, maybe the most important one is that getting all your affairs in order – clearly and smartly – while you're still healthy makes for one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give to yourself and your loved ones.