Getting started on estate planning: Key actions to take

Use this checklist to create an estate plan that reflects your goals and values.

A thoughtful estate plan often needs to accomplish multiple goals, including ensuring the orderly distribution of assets, managing potential tax consequences and potentially supporting the charitable causes and organizations you care about. 

As you start the process, you’ll have to make a few key estate planning decisions. We will help you think through them to create an estate planning strategy that reflects your goals and your values.

Here are key actions to help you craft your estate plan:

In this article:

Assign (and regularly update) your beneficiaries

The beneficiary designations on your financial accounts typically supersede any instructions in a will, so if they’re outdated, your assets may pass to people you didn’t intend. To ensure that doesn’t happen, review your primary and secondary beneficiary designations every year and after significant life events, including marriages, divorces, births or deaths.
Accounts to review regularly include, but are not limited to:

  • Qualified retirement plan accounts
  • Pensions
  • Life insurance policies
  • Bank accounts
  • Certain property and business ownership agreements

Advice spotlight

Avoid the possibility of your assets being distributed to the wrong person or organization by regularly reviewing and updating your beneficiary designations. Your beneficiaries override any instructions outlined in a will and thus should be assessed regularly and after major life events.

Learn more: Why naming beneficiaries is an essential part of estate planning

Confirm your real estate is correctly titled

Real estate titles help determine who receives the property after your death. Each state has its own laws around inheriting property. An estate attorney can make sure your property titles are valid, current and reflect your wishes.

Prepare for unexpected scenarios during your lifetime

In the event you are no longer able to make decisions for yourself, here are three documents to secure to ensure your wishes are followed:

  • Durable power of attorney (DPOA): Allows you to name someone — usually a spouse or other family member — to take care of important financial matters if you are no longer able, including paying bills or overseeing investments. 
  • Health care proxy: Functions as a power of attorney for health care matters, allowing your representative to make medical decisions on your behalf.
  • Advanced directive: Known as a living will, documents your medical treatment preferences should you become physically or mentally incapacitated. Though advanced directives are valid throughout the U.S., different states have different rules. Work with an attorney to ensure your directive complies with the laws where you live.
  • HIPPA release authority: This gives your chosen representative access to your protected medical files and should be included in your advanced directive.

Learn more: Addressing health care concerns in your estate plan

Draft a will

A will provides specific instructions about what to do with your assets after you’re gone. It allows you to name an executor and designate a guardian to care for any minor children or other dependents if you pass away. Once you have a will, make it easily accessible to your loved ones and estate planning team.

Learn more: An introduction to wills and trusts

Decide whether a trust is right for you

Trusts can give you more control over how you distribute assets while helping to reduce potential taxes for your estate and beneficiaries. They also allow for greater privacy in that they help avoid probate, an often costly and time-consuming legal process that is a matter of public record. 

Whether a trust is suitable for you depends on many factors, including your family situation and estate size. As such, there are many types of trusts designed to address various needs.

Learn more: High-net-worth estate planning: When to consider advanced trusts in your plan

Name your executor and/or trustee

Executors and trustees play critical roles in estate plans, but their responsibilities can be complicated and time-consuming. Executors and trustees can be friends or family members; but if your estate is particularly complex, you can also hire a professional to take on these responsibilities.

  • Executor: An executor is the person you appoint to administer your last will and testament. Depending on the estate, that could include paying bills and taxes, distributing inheritances and working with — or sometimes hiring — estate attorneys or tax professionals to carry out your wishes.
  • Trustee: If your estate plan includes a trust, a trustee will need to administer its assets. Among other things, the trustee may be responsible for managing investments, keeping accurate records and preparing and filing annual tax returns.

Learn more: How to choose an estate planning team: Attorneys, trustees and executors

Align your estate plan with your values

An estate plan is more than just assets. Think about the people, causes and organizations you care about — and how you may want to express those values through your plan. Using your assets to help secure your family’s future or support a cherished cause are ways your values may come to life in your estate plan.

Document your final wishes

Though it’s technically separate from your estate plan, making your final wishes clear can help your loved ones during a difficult time. Your final wishes should include details like whether you want to be buried or cremated, what kind of service or memorial you’d prefer or where memorial donations should go. You may even want to pre-pay for your arrangements; just make sure your executors are aware of those plans and have the necessary documentation. Consider storing your final wishes documentation with your other estate planning records so they are easy to find when your executor needs them.

Talk to your loved ones about your plan

Clearly communicating your estate planning decisions with your heirs and loved ones can make the process less stressful. By sharing your decisions in advance, you can help reduce uncertainty and potential conflict down the road. As part of this process, share information on key contacts and the location of important documents for clarity and easy access.

Learn more: How to talk about estate planning with your loved ones

Start planning your legacy now

With our help to guide you through the process, you can create an estate plan that is aligned to your financial goals and creates a legacy that reflects your values. 

Questions to discuss with us

  • How can I get started creating an estate plan?
  • How can I make charitable giving part of my estate plan?
  • Where are opportunities to reflect my financial values in my estate plan?