Written by: Erin Calpin, Esq.
An estate plan outlines, with legal documentation, what happens to your assets and liabilities, your last wishes, and who should make medical and financial decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated or pass away.
Much goes into estate planning that shouldn’t be overlooked for those new to the process, including designating beneficiaries, naming an agent under your power of attorney, and naming guardians for minor children. It can be a lot to take in at first but enlisting the help of an estate planning attorney can demystify the process and ensure your passing or incapacitation is handled correctly and efficiently.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes a complete estate plan.
#1 – A Valid and Comprehensive Will and/or Trust
The will is perhaps the most popular and well-known component of an estate plan. Your last will and testament is a legal document that designates who should receive your assets and liabilities, who should oversee that distribution, and appoints guardians for your minor children if you become incapacitated or pass away.
Laws and regulations surrounding will creation vary from state to state. Generally, witnesses are required to verify and sign your will, and your local probate court must deem the will as legally valid before its terms can be enforced.
A trust is very similar to a will in that it names trustees to manage specific assets on behalf of designated beneficiaries, except a trust is not subject to the probate process, and assets held in a trust can be distributed upon death or during life without the necessity of probate. Trusts can be used in conjunction with or instead of a will.
#2 – Designated Durable Power of Attorney
A durable power of attorney (POA) is a legal arrangement that designates who will make important financial decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated or are simply unavailable to act for yourself while alive. There are several types of powers of attorney, but a durable power of attorney’s responsibilities come into effect immediately and remain in effect even if you should become incapacitated.
Should you fail to designate an agent under your durable power of attorney, and you do become incapacitated, someone may have to apply to the court to be appointed as your guardian.
#2a– A Designated Medical Power of Attorney
An agent under a medical power of attorney is in charge of making important healthcare decisions on your behalf should you become unable to do so yourself.
It’s recommended that your medical power of attorney is a family member, spouse, or someone you would trust with your life. Your medical power of attorney agent may be put in charge of making tough decisions surrounding your health and well-being, so take the time to designate the most suitable person, with whom you are comfortable speaking about your medical treatment. This type of power of attorney is one of the estate planning documents needed.
#3 – A Letter of Intent
While a letter of intent may or may not be deemed a valid document in the eyes of the court, it helps make your wishes and desires surrounding specific assets or liabilities clear. It is usually addressed to your executor (the person in charge of your asset distribution and liability settlement) or a particular beneficiary.
You may also include funeral instructions in your letter of intent. Should you die without a will or if your will is deemed invalid by the court, a letter of intent helps a judge understand your wishes and desires around related subjects.
Related: 3 Ways To Avoid a Will Contest