Skip to Content

Estate planning checklist: Getting started

Estate planning, wills, and trusts aren’t only for the "super wealthy" or those with complicated finances. Consider these estate planning tips that will have you better prepared for any crisis.

Woman with notepad and calculator 

Talking about and planning for death or disability never tops watching your favorite TV show, reading a book, or turning on a ballgame after a long day.

Terms like estate planning, wills, and trusts may seem only important for the "super wealthy" or those with more complicated finances.

You may think to yourself, "I’ll tackle that someday," or "Hey, I have beneficiaries on my retirement accounts and life insurance — I’m good."

The truth is, if you don’t have children, and your balance sheet is made up of mostly retirement accounts (such as your 401(k) plan and an IRA or two) with beneficiaries listed, you may be in good standing. As your assets get larger and more complicated, the more planning you have to do. Consider these estate planning tips for your personal estate plan.

  • Make arrangements for minor children.

    • Do you have minor children? If so, do you have guardianship documented in a will or written out and signed?

    • If you do have children but no guardianship specifications in a will, do not procrastinate any longer. Construct a document that details the immediate actions for your children in the event something happens to you, your spouse, and/or co-parent, and sign it in your handwriting. It helps to have the document witnessed also. Store the document in a safe place, or give it to the person who you want to handle your matters after you’re gone.

    • It would still be our recommendation to consult with an attorney and get the guardianship more formally documented in a will when time permits.

  • Maintain a balance sheet.

    • Update it at least annually (regardless of how much money you have).

    • It’s vitally important to have a good listing of all of your assets, including investment accounts and other assets such as real estate, bank accounts, etc.

    • Make sure that the balance sheet reflects who owns the account and lists the primary and contingent beneficiaries.

  • Regularly review your beneficiary designations.

    • We can’t tell you how often we see missing beneficiaries on accounts where people would swear they had one listed. Think of when you switch jobs and assume that stuff "transfers" over. Think again — it doesn’t.

    • Contingent beneficiaries are just as important as the primary. People often don’t think of dying in a common death with the person (often your spouse) that’s listed as their primary beneficiary, but it is possible.

    • Review to ensure that all of your children are listed as contingent beneficiaries, not just the oldest. People often name their first child and forget to consider any other children. We just made you think, didn’t we?

  • Name a payable on death (POD) on your bank accounts, including joint bank accounts.

    • You can go to your local bank, or download an online form to name a POD to your bank accounts, which is essentially a beneficiary designation so that if you pass away, these accounts aren’t subject to probate. Probate is public record and more administratively burdensome and expensive.

    • Even if your bank account is joint with rights of survivorship with you and your spouse or another party, you can still name a POD to a third party should you die in a common accident.

  • Name a contingent account owner on education accounts.

    • The education savings plans allow for an account owner and beneficiary. But, did you know that there is also the ability to name a contingent account owner on those accounts? Oftentimes, it’s the spouse as the first owner and the second spouse or a grandparent as the contingent. Trust us, it’s easier and more advisable to name this contingent account owner when you establish the account or are still living then to try to fix it if something happens to the primary account owner.

  • Don’t forget the less common assets.

    • HSA accounts, random mutual fund accounts that Aunt Sally funded for you at your college graduation, and other easily forgotten assets need beneficiaries too. Make sure to include these overlooked assets on your balance sheet and in your beneficiary review as they could also be subject to probate if forgotten.

  • Consider the incapacity planning for healthcare.

    • If you’re like most people, you aren’t eager to spend time thinking about what would happen if you became unable to direct your own medical care because of illness, an accident, or advanced age. But, if you don’t plan at least a little through executing a Health Care Power of Attorney form - or at a minimum, writing down your wishes about the kinds of treatment you do or don’t want to receive or naming someone you trust to oversee your care — these important matters could end up in the hands of family members, doctors, and sometimes even judges, who may know very little about your wishes or preferences.

  • Consider the incapacity planning for financial decisions.

    • A Power of Attorney (POA) is a document in which you give authority to your "attorney-in-fact" (who need not be a lawyer) to act on your behalf. The scope of the power can be quite limited or almost unlimited. It is an inexpensive and reliable way to arrange for someone to make your financial decisions should you become unable to do so yourself.

  • Keep track of your plans for digital assets.

    • Consider keeping a list of all your online accounts and passwords (in a secure place) so that they can be accessed by a trusted individual in the event something happens to you.

Setting aside time to address these key issues will have you better prepared for any crisis.

We recommend meeting with an attorney that focuses on estate planning in your state to review your balance sheet, discuss your personal situation, and work on drafting documents that are appropriate for you. Your situation may or may not warrant drafting and funding a trust, your attorney can help you decide that. There are online providers that allow you to draft simple documents if the expense of an attorney isn’t in the budget at this time. However, we recommend that, if you are able, work with an experienced attorney who specializes in estate planning in your state of residence.

Having a relationship with a holistic financial advisor (preferably a Certified Financial Planner) can also be helpful in this process to draft the balance sheet and review everything in advance of meeting with the attorney. Your advisor can also help get the titling and beneficiaries updated after the necessary documents are executed.

Related Thinking

Family creating a plan for their grandmother’s personal property.
April 12, 2024

Estate planning and family harmony: How to pass on cherished possessions without creating conflict

Article 5 min read
Child playing the piano while their mother watches and smiles.
April 9, 2024

SECURE Act and special needs heirs: Why it’s time to revisit your estate plan

Article 4 min read
Financial advisor talking to their clients about how to set their family business up for success.
March 26, 2024

Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves: Overcoming family business trends

Article 3 min read