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8 Things to Help You Start the Estate Planning Process

Whether you're ready to work with an attorney, or you just want to know what kinds of conversations you should be having with your loved ones, or what documents might be needed for planning, this checklist will help you.

This checklist will also save you time and energy when you're ready for that attorney!

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Rally Your Team and Tick all the Boxes!

1. Positive Mindset and Being Open to the Process

  • You will benefit from planning that is done with an open mind about what may be best under your circumstances and that is in line with your goals.

  • You will also benefit with a proactive and positive mindset so you can finish the process.

  • Thinking about estate planning documents is different than completing those documents. It does no good to think, start and then stop before you complete your legal documents.

  • Being proactive is important as you never know when a need may arise.

  • As well, you can think about updating and revising these documents, as long as you have capacity, as time moves on.

One of my personal go-to favorites for positive mindset is Barbara Leggett, founder of the Happiness Center of WNY. Hear what she had to say about positive mindset and estate planning on my podcast.

This whole episode is great, but the pertinent part runs from about time marker 14:52 to 17:01. So much great stuff in just a few minutes! It should be cued up for you.

2. Your Information and Your Family Information

  • Have correct information about your information and your family.

  • A standard questionnaire can be one of the best ways to obtain this information. The more specific and correct information you provide, the smoother the process.

  • You need to provide your complete legal name, address, county of residence, zip code, marital status (information on prior marriages) and so on.

  • For your family information, you need to provide legal names, addresses and relationships of your next of kin or those considered your likely “intestate heirs”. This is extremely important and should be reviewed properly so the appropriate information is provided.

Will contests are always top of mind when I am working with clients on estate planning documents and these questions and the information provided play a role in that!

3. Asset and Debt Information

Often, people are unaware of the true extent of their assets and do not realize that life insurance, retirement benefits and other assets also need to be factored into planning.

  • Have the description of each of your assets and how each is titled as well as the beneficiary designations for certain assets.

  • Have the approximate values of each asset.

  • Have known or probable debt information.

  • Have information on lawsuits, potential claims, potential inheritances or other factors that may affect assets or net worth.

This information plays into whether the overall plan will make sense.

This also plays into any estate tax concerns or potential concerns which require flexible options.

This topic is something I touched on with podcast guest Dr. Russell James, J.D., Ph.D., CFP®. We spoke on it for about 10 minutes. Again, the video should be cued up to just the right spot for you to listen in.

4. Information on Your Health and Others You Are Planning For

  • It can be important to consider if a trust should be set up to protect a beneficiary in the event he/she is or becomes disabled from losing their government benefits.

  • As well, couples may need to plan appropriately considering the health of both.

  • This information should be used to also help make appropriate arrangements in other legal documents to support one’s needs into the future.

  • This information should also be used as a way to think and plan for care and needs into the future.

5. Information on People, Pets, Charities and Entities That Affect What Planning You Do

  • Know the general idea of what you want so you can flesh that out appropriately.

  • Know your personal circumstances and intentions. For example, do you want any specific gifts, are there specific assets or special assets that need to be dealt with, what alternate distributions should be considered.

  • What makes sense given the people/pets/charities you want to benefit? Does that mean a testamentary trust should be included to benefit minor children, grandchildren or permanently disabled individuals as beneficiaries of the estate or if you are concerned about the financial abilities or maturity of an intended beneficiary or the beneficiaries ability to self-manage large inheritances.

  • Know information, such as names, addresses and relationships of intended fiduciaries and alternate fiduciaries (ie: executor, guardian, trustee, agent in Power of Attorney document and agent in Health Care Proxy).

  • Know information about who could take care of pets and what financial arrangements should be considered as this can be further fleshed out.

  • Have, at least, basic information about charities you intend to benefit through your planning so that can be further fleshed out.

  • Know information about any entities that are affected by your planning. For example, an LLC, a Corporation or a dba and any pertinent information/documents.

6. Copies of Documents That Could Affect Your Estate Planning Matters (Deeds, Business Documents, Pre-marital Agreements, etc.)

  • Have copies of documents that could or may affect the planning you want to do.

  • This includes deeds, buy-sell agreements, operating agreements, partnership agreement, shareholder agreement, pre-marital agreement, post-marital agreement, current estate planning documents, etc.

  • There can be various possible options with respect to transferring assets during life or entering into more sophisticated planning such as revocable or irrevocable trusts, buy-sell agreements or deed transfers.

This can also be a great time to become aware of changes that can be made due to review of these documents.

7. Helpful Professional Advisor Information as You Need to Coordinate Your Plans With Them

  • It can be extremely helpful to have other advisor information so as to know who may be helping you and how professionals can work together, if need be.

Even in the event of disability or passing, knowing information on advisors can be extremely helpful.

8. Communicate and Open the Lines of Communication With Your "Team"

This one is listed last, but it's really an ongoing process.

  • Communicate with those you want to be a part of your “team” as these are the people that will be helping out in times of need.

  • Is there another professional who can help open the lines of communication?

  • Are the people you want in your “team” ready, willing and able to help?

This can be a bit delicate and should be discussed to determine what may be best in your situation. But overall you want to have conversations with the people who will play important roles in your financial and health care decisions and upon your passing.

Remember that positive attitude to complete this phase of the process so you have those important legal estate planning documents in place!

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