A short checklist is not meant to solve all your estate planning issues. It's just a way to get started.
You may find that once you have done the simpler things, you have mental energy freed up to tackle the bigger tasks.
Inventory your stuff. This means your physical assets — jewelry, collectibles, cars, electronics, tools, home, etc., and your non-physical assets — retirement accounts, bank accounts, life insurance, brokerage accounts, advisors, and other insurance. Include your debts, too — credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, etc. Include contact information for any accounts. Make copies of this list and keep them in a safe place. If you die suddenly, your family will need to find this information very quickly.
Gather your life documents. This means all deeds, birth certificate, marriage certificate, property tax records, titles, etc. Let important people know where these are kept. If you die, people will need this information fast.
Make a will. Once you have inventoried what you own, ask yourself, "Do I want the courts to decide who gets all this after I die?" If you don't, then make a will. Will-making software is available, but an estate attorney is your best source of help. Make sure your will is signed, dated, witnessed, and notarized. If you are not ready for this step, consider writing your wishes on paper as a start (this will not have legal authority. It's just a way to get started thinking).
Choose an administrator. This person will carry out your will after you're gone. Choose a responsible person of sound mental state. Leave your emotions out of the selection process.
Get your paperwork in order. This includes a copy of your list of assets, your sources of wealth and debts, your attorney information if you have one, and all other necessary documents. Put it all together, make a few copies, and give one copy to your administrator. Review this paperwork periodically.
Update any life insurance and annuities. Make sure that the beneficiaries listed there are the ones you want to receive your money after you die.
Ensure that beneficiaries are named on your accounts. This includes retirement accounts, life insurance policies, savings and checking accounts, brokerage accounts — any accounts that normally involve beneficiaries.
Assign guardianship for your children or other dependents (and your pets, too). Name a guardian even if your children aren't born yet. For pets, you can name a guardian in a will or a pet trust.
Determine how you want to handle your own incapacity. This is where an advance directive (called a living will in some states) and a power of attorney come into play. At the very least, start thinking about what you would want.
Leave plans (or wishes) for a funeral. Put these in writing. A funeral, a memorial, donating your body — think about these things now. If you die suddenly, your family will need to make a decision about your funeral very fast. Put these plans with your other paperwork.
There are other necessary things you need to do beyond this simple list, like visit an estate planner or an attorney, and perhaps set up some trusts. But the important thing at this stage is to get over your inertia and start the ball rolling.
Once you have done the tasks on this list, you may find yourself free of mental burdens that were using up space in your mind for years, and you will feel a certain peace of mind.
Dive Deeper: Estate Planning: Everything you need to know
This content was created in partnership with the Financial Fitness Group, a leading e-learning provider of FINRA compliant financial wellness solutions that help improve financial literacy.
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