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7 Essential Estate Planning Documents, Forms, and Strategies

Last update on: Aug 07 2020

You can save your loved ones months or years of time, frustration and anguish. All you have to do is make sure your estate plan has all the essential documents and that key people know where to locate them.

As I’ve said before, Estate Planning is about much more than tax reduction. A complete estate plan allows your assets to be transferred quickly and efficiently to the next owners. It also ensures your comfort, care and financial security for the rest of your life. You’re likely to have additional priorities, but those are the main goals that apply to every estate plan.

To accomplish these goals, you need to have key documents in good order. The documents also need to be organized and in a location your executor and key family members know.

Otherwise, your loved ones will join the ranks of the millions with dreadful, distressing stories of dealing with their parents’ estates. They tell about the weeks, months, or longer spent rummaging through files, boxes and other containers of papers looking for the key documents. Sometimes the searches ultimately are successful.

Other times, businesses and government agencies need to be contacted (and often paid) to pro-duce copies of needed documents. It is not unusual for loved ones to always wonder if there are assets and benefits they didn’t find.

Avoid putting your family through that experience. Compile and organize the key documents your

heirs will need and let them know where the documents are located. You know there should be a will and probably a revocable living trust, so I’m not going to include those in this list of essential documents.

Digital Asset Information.

I used to put this item farther down the list, but its importance has increased greatly for most people. It is so important that I’ll have a longer discussion in an upcoming issue.

Compile a master list of all your online accounts, subscriptions, bill payments and similar items. Your executor needs passwords and other information to manage your financial accounts, cancel automatic bill payments and subscriptions, and access email and social media accounts. You might have other digital assets and accounts the executor or family members should know about.

In addition, your will should explicitly give your executor or someone else the right to access and use the digital assets and accounts. Ownership of these items also should be bequeathed to specific people in your will.


The first step an executor takes is to prepare an inventory of everything you own and owe. Don’t make it hard for him or her. Prepare an inventory and update it annually.

Life insurance and annuities probably are the most common lost assets. The executor needs to know details of all your life insurance coverage, including employer and union benefits, veteran’s coverage and any others you have. Retirement accounts and benefits also can be overlooked, because these assets and benefits aren’t transferred through your will. The current beneficiary designation forms and details about the accounts and benefits need to be part of the inventory.

To make compiling the inventory easier for both you and the executor, use my workbook, To My Heirs: A Book of Final Wishes and Instructions. To learn more, on, click on “About bob Carlson” and then click on “Bob’s Library.”

Proof of Ownership.

Once the executor knows what you own, they have to be able to prove it. Most people don’t give these basic documents much thought. The documents aren’t in places that are obvious to some-one else. Locating these documents often is one of the major problems for surviving loved ones. Too often, the documents aren’t found. That’s why each state has an online list of unclaimed property and benefits.

You need to assemble deeds and leases to real estate, title and registrations to vehicles, and financial account statements. If you own individual stocks and bonds, keep the documentation organized. Be sure the executor knows where to find the

proof of ownership. When you own a business, its organizational and operating papers need to be kept up to date and in good order.

The executor also might need proof of debt payments. Proof that you paid a mortgage, car loan, or other significant debt should be included with ownership documents.

Powers of Attorney.

At a mini-mum, you need two powers of attorney (POAs) designating one or more agents to act on your behalf when you can’t represent yourself.

One POA should cover your financial affairs. Another POA, also known as an advance medical directive, enables one or more people to make medical decisions on your behalf.

We discussed these documents in past issues of Retirement Watch and will discuss them again in the future. You can find the past articles in the Archive on the members’ section of Personal documents. Many people are surprised by the information and proof that’s required to process an estate, transfer benefits and take other actions.

Your executor is likely to need your birth certificate and passport. A marriage license and any divorce documents also should be readily available, as should your Social Security and Medicare information. If you served in the military, documentation of that is important.

Copies of your income tax returns are helpful in preparing your final in-come tax returns and also in providing assurance that key sources of income and investment assets were located.

If you rent safe deposit or post office boxes, the executor needs all the details.

Letter of Instructions.

The letter often is a guide to the documents already discussed, plus additional information the executor and loved ones need to know. It has no legal effect but provides great help to your loved ones.

The letter, of course, makes clear where all the essential documents are located and how to access them. It also should provide valuable contact information, such as your attorney, accountant, financial services firms and any other sources you think might be helpful.

Some letters go further by providing advice and recommendations on how to manage, sell or otherwise dispose of key assets. This might be important if you have a collection, small business, real estate or some special investments.

Personal Letter.

This document typically is directed at family members rather than the executor and doesn’t concern finances. You can leave a guide to your preferences and ideas for a funeral or memorial service as well as burial or cremation instructions.

You also can draft an obituary and state where you’d like it published. Some people go a step further and write what’s often known as a “family love letter.” The letter might provide a personal or family biography, express their affection and wishes for family members or impart some wisdom or lessons learned over the years.

More information about the essential estate planning documents and strategies is available in the March 2018 edition of my Spotlight Series of online seminars. Learn more about the Spotlight Series by calling 800-552-1152 or clicking the Retirement Watch Spotlight Series link at



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