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The Ultimate Will and Estate Planning Checklist and Basics Guide

Last update on: Dec 29 2020
Estate Planning

The Ultimate Estate Planning Checklist and Basics Guide – Table of Contents

    • Identifying Loved Ones
    • Assets and Property
    • Non-Financial Issues
    • Legacy
    • The Will
    • Estate Planning Documents
    • Estate Asset Identification and Tracking
    • Health Care Directives
    • Financial Power of Attorney
    • IRA and Retirement Beneficiaries
    • Avoiding Probate
    • Living Trusts
    • QTIP Trusts
    • Spouse’s Estate Considerations
    • Life Insurance
    • Business Ownership
    • Lifetime Gifts
    • Funeral and other End of Life Expenses
    • Executor’s Letter of Instruction
    • Book of Estate Planning Instructions
    • Updating and Reassessing your Estate Plan

An estate planning checklist is a helpful starting point for putting together a comprehensive and well thought through estate plan that protects your heirs. And it should cover what happens in the event and both death and disability.

Remember that the main goal of estate planning is to protect both you and your family. Regardless of your age or wealth, you need an estate plan, and this comprehensive checklist will ensure you have a complete estate plan and that it stays up to date.

An estate plan involves a lot more than writing a simple will. For some people, it involves steps to reduce estate taxes. In the past, this was often extremely important. Fortunately, as a result of changes to the tax law, few estates will owe federal estate taxes. But for everyone, the key objective of the estate plan is to determine who receives your property after you pass away. However, many people don’t complete their estate plans because they don’t know how to begin. They are overwhelmed by the different items that should be in an estate plan. This estate planning checklist was created to make the process simpler and easier.

Even if you decide to turn your estate plan over to an estate planning attorney, you will still need an understanding of what is involved and the attorney will likely work thru an estate planning checklist like this one with you to ensure there plan is complete.

Estate Planning Checklist identifies the loved ones you want to provide for and protect

Identifying the family and friends you want to provide for and protect is a critical first step in any estate plan because taking care of loved ones is the ultimate goal of the estate plan. Also, identify any charities you wish to support.


Estate Planning Checklist Covers the Ownership of Valuable Property and Sentimental Assets

The estate plan should cover not only major property assets but also which heirs and beneficiaries should receive items that have sentimental or emotional value. Though they might have little financial value these assets often are the source of bitter and long-lasting family disputes, so give a lot of thought to how these are allocated in an estate plan.

An estate plan also determines how much of an estate goes through the probate process. Probate can be time-consuming and expensive, depending on your state. There are ways to avoid probate, so you might want to include some of those methods in your plan. Some assets avoid probate and aren’t controlled by the will. For these other assets, beneficiary designation forms should have been filed so that these assets will transfer to the desired heir.


Estate Planning Checklist Includes Nonfinancial Issues such as Minor Children and Medical Treatment Planning

A complete plan also covers nonfinancial issues. If you have minor children, determine who will be their guardians if you and their other parent both pass away.

Decide who will be responsible for your care and manage your assets when you aren’t able to do so because of an illness or an injury. Assets can be protected from your heirs or their creditors through the use of trusts and other methods.

Take burdens off your loved ones by leaving guidelines for your burial services and arrangements.


Estate Planning Checklist Affects the Legacy You Leave

An estate plan determines whether you leave the legacy you want. You can lift significant burdens off of the survivors with a well-crafted estate plan and leave them financially secure. To do so, follow the two estate planning checklists below. The first list helps to ensure an estate plan covers all the key elements. The other list ensures the estate plan does not become obsolete. Review both regularly to determine if updates to an estate plan are needed. To learn details about many of these items, refer to the back issues of Retirement Watch or the book, “The New Rules of Estate Planning,” by bob Carlson.


The Ultimate Estate Planning Assets Checklist:

 0) Do Something!

The biggest problem with any estate plan is doing nothing, which is why I call this issue item 0! If you don’t even have a basic will, then your state will determine how your property is distributed. The best solution to this is to do your estate plan in instalments by working down the checklist below. Start by putting together a simple, basic estate plan now and then refine and improve it incrementally.

1) Do you have an up-to-date will?

Dying with no will, also known as dying intestate,  means a person has no say over who receives his or her assets. Instead, state law determines who gets what.

Friends, relatives other than immediate family, a domestic partner, charities and your pets won’t get anything if you die without a will.

If you have minor children, ensure the will names one or more guardians and backup guardians for them and document your wishes for their care and provide for their financial support. Also, think about guardians for your pets.

Think carefully about how you want to distribute assets that might cause conflict among your heirs.

When you draft a will, you need to make sure all of your property is accounted for and your beneficiaries are specifically named. Your will should also name an executor and provide alternatives in case the executor is no longer alive or cannot serve as executor for some reason. Make sure the executor is prepared to serve. Additionally, the document must be signed in the presence of witnesses; the number of witnesses varies by state.

If you do not hire an experienced estate planning lawyer to help you create your will, you might make mistakes that render your will invalid.

More on the Will: How to Craft the Perfect Will for your Estate Plan


2) Gather important documents.

Key documents include:

  • Personal identification: A birth certificate, passport and marriage license.
  • Health care documents
    • HIPAA authorization: Allows health care providers to share your medical status with designated family members.
    • Advanced health care directive (aka a living will): States wheter you want to remain on life support if there is no chance of recovery.
  • Tax returns and other tax documents
  • Copies of statements for all bank accounts and investment accounts
  • List and copies of all insurance policies
  • Real estate title and deeds
  • Share certificates
  • Proof of asset ownership
  • Marriage and divorce documents and birth certificates
  • Last will and testament
  • Power of attorney
  • Health Care directive
  • Trust agreements
  • Social media accounts
  • Debt summaries from loans, mortgages, credit cards, etc.
  • Recurring bills
  • Divorce decree
  • Vehicle titles

More on Estate Planning Documents and Forms: What Estate Planning Documents and Estate Planning Forms Do You Need and Why Are They Important?

Store all your documents in a safe place (like a safe or safety deposit box) and inform your family, executor and trustees how to access them.

3) Keep track of your Assets and Estate

Maintain an updated list of all assets and liabilities including their location. Ensure you update this list once a year and share this list with your spouse and named executor. Also, put together a file of all documents that back up this list of assets and liabilities.

You should consider every asset including homes, land, real estate, vehicles, collectibles, jewelry, artwork, personal possessions, bank accounts, stock, bond and mutual fund investments, life insurance policies, retirement plans, health savings accounts, business ownership, etc.

You should also consider Digital Assets, which is an evolving area. Start by compiling a list of your digital assets: social media accounts, websites, email addresses, etc. The list should include access information including web address, user name and password. Also, note any automatic payments related to these accounts so that an executor can ensure they are either paid or cancelled.


4) Do you have an advanced health care directive?

If you became incapacitated and never named someone to have a medical care power of attorney, a court will choose someone to decide on your behalf. In order to avoid having a person you don’t know or trust make health care decisions for you, you need an advance health care directive.

In an advance health care directive, you name one or more people (via a health care power of attorney) to direct your medical treatment if you are unable to do so. An advance health care directive also can include any directions and preferences you have for your treatment and care to guide the agents when making decisions. For example, the advance directive sets forth your wishes regarding what types of life-prolonging medical treatment you do, or do not, want in the event you become critically ill or are unable to communicate your wishes. You can also indicate what you would like to do with your remains, organ donations, etc.

If you fail to appoint a health care agent, usually a court has to appoint someone to make medical care decisions for you. Or a doctor will make decisions if the situation is considered an emergency.

When considering who to appoint as your medical care power of attorney, consider these qualities: Must know you well

  • Must be available when needed
  • Must be reliable
  • Must be trustworthy
  • Must be able to communicate your decisions to your doctor
  • Your agent should also be a strong advocate for you. They should be able to handle conflicting opinions — from your family members, friends and medical personnel.

More Power of Attorney Resources: Power of Attorney: The Most Important Document in your Estate Plan

More Medical Document Resources: How to Make Health Care Directives Work


5) Consider a Financial Power of Attorney

Consider a financial power of attorney who can act on your behalf in financial matters in the event of disability.

6) Select beneficiaries for your IRAs and other qualified retirement plans.

These accounts avoid probate. They automatically are inherited by the beneficiaries you named. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the default beneficiary determined by the plan administrator’s policies will inherit the accounts. Your estate plan should be sure that the beneficiary designation forms are reviewed and will transfer the assets to those who are supposed to receive them.


7) Considered using a living trust or other methods to avoid probate. Do you recognize all the implications of the strategy?

Living trusts (aka revocable living trusts) allow the assets owned by the trust to avoid probate while passing to the next generation of owners. A person can alter or revoke a living trust at any time while alive. The revocability can also be helpful if events occur that alter your trust’s structure. For example, a beneficiary may die, and relationships might change. You never know what the future holds. The flexibility of a living trust allows you to make changes as needed. Select the trustee and successor trustees with care. A revocable living trust is generally considered the best choice for handling the distribution of property upon death as they are flexible, avoid and probate, and help minimize federal estate taxes.

More Probate Resources: To Probate or Not to Probate

More about Trusts: Types of Trusts and Reasons for Using them


8) If you have a living trust, have you shifted title of your assets to the trust?

Many people have living trusts drafted and then don’t transfer legal title of their assets to the trusts. That makes the trusts worthless. Transferring assets to the trust is known as funding the trust. Check with your estate planning attorney if you need help transferring legal title of assets to the trust.

If your trust is never funded, it won’t affect how your property is transferred after your death.

Asset ownership is extremely important either thru transferring ownership to your trust or alternatively ownership in an asset can be held as joint tenant with rights of survivorship to allow title to automatically pass to a co-owner.

9) Consider using a qualified terminable interest property (QTIP) trust to leave property to your spouse while limiting your spouse’s ability to leave the property to others.

The QTIP trust pays its income to your surviving spouse for life and also makes payments from principal when needed to support the surviving spouse. After your spouse passes away, the remaining property in the trust goes to the beneficiaries you designated. The QTIP trust ensures your spouse is supported for life and that any property remaining in the trust go to the people you intended. It is especially useful when one or more of the spouses has children from a previous marriage or you want to ensure the trust assets don’t go to a spouse or children of a subsequent marriage.


10) Does each spouse have legal title to enough assets in his or her own name to take advantage of the lifetime estate and gift tax credit?

This is an issue of concern only to families whose estates might be subject to the federal estate tax. Also, ensure your estate plan takes full advantage of the marital deduction (although this has become less important under the latest tax law). If you are wealthy, you should maximize use of the marital deduction to ensure the maximum amount of assets avoid the federal estate tax.


11) Determine the amount of life insurance you need and the right type of insurance for you.

Life insurance traditionally is used to pay estate taxes, but it has a lot of other uses. You might want life insurance to pay off debts or other expenses in the event of death or disability. Life insurance might be important if you own a small business or investment real estate. It also can be a way to equalize inheritances among loved ones, leave a bequest to charity, or ensure a minimum inheritance.

More Life Insurance Resources: Life Insurance: How Much Do You Need?


12) Consider shifting ownership of a life insurance policy from your name to an irrevocable trust, partnership, or beneficiary.

When the estate might be subject to federal estate taxes, you probably want the life insurance owned by a trust or other entity, so the benefits aren’t taxed. You also might want to ensure the insurance avoids probate or that it is managed and distributed over time according to your wishes.


13) If you own a business, do you have a management succession plan and an ownership succession plan in place?


14) Does your business have a buy-sell agreement?


Lifetime Gifts

15) Do you take advantage of the annual gift tax exclusion within the limits of your budget?

This allows you to transfer assets out of your estate without owing any gift taxes or using part of your lifetime estate and gift tax exemption.


16) When you make annual gifts, do you give property that is likely to appreciate in the future?

That ensures the future appreciation is out of your estate and won’t use up part of your exempt amount.


17) Have you considered making gifts above the annual tax-free amount to use your lifetime estate and gift tax exemption?

Doing so ensures that you take advantage of the exemption while it still is available. It is set to be reduced after 2024.


18) Are gifts for minors put into trusts with Crummey provisions to maximize tax-free giving?


19) Have you considered giving, now or in your will, directly to your grandchildren to avoid their parents’ estate tax?

If you’re very wealthy, these generation-skipping gifts can avoid a layer of estate and gift taxes. Above a certain amount, the gifts are subject to the generation-skipping tax but are well worth considering up to the amount that’s exempt from the generation-skipping tax.


20) If you make charitable gifts in your will, have you considered making those gifts with your IRA, other qualified retirement plan, or Charitable Trust?

This often is the most efficient way to make charitable gifts.

More Charitable Gift Resources: Using Charitable Gifts to Increase your Income

More Lifetime Gift Resources: How to Maximize the Power of Gifts in Your Estate Plan


21) Establish a final expense plan.

You estimate the expenses that are likely to be incurred by your passing or continue after your passing until the estate is settled. Then, as part of your estate plan you ensure that the estate will have enough cash to pay these expenses.

More Burial and Funeral Resources: Funeral and Burial Arrangements


22) Leave letters of instruction for executor and family

This is a document that provides valuable information your executor and family needs to locate all of your financial accounts, insurance policies, credit cards, vehicle loans and mortgages.

This letter should include the contact information of relatives and friends to notify them that you have died. The letter should also state where assets are located and provide instructions about your desires for burial, cremation, funeral ceremonies and organ donation.

This is not a legally binding document.

Also, use this opportunity to inform your family, the executor, and trustees of your overall estate plan.

23) Have you prepared a book of instructions, checklists and documents for your executor and loved ones?

These documents make things easier on your loved ones and help ensure your goals are met. Sample instructions, checklists and documents are available in the workbook, To My Heirs by Bob Carlson.


24) Plan to reassess – Estate Plan Update Checklist

If there has been a change in any one or more of the following items since the last review of your estate planning strategy, then it is time to get in touch with your estate planning advisor and update the plan.

  • The marital status of you or any of your family members
  • The birth or adoption of any children or grandchildren
  • A serious illness or disability of you or any other family member
  • Changes in the support provided for parents, children, in-laws, or others
  • New financial problems of any family members
  • Gifts to family members, other than those scheduled in your plan
  • Loans to family members, either given or forgiven, other than those in your plan.
  • The amount of life insurance provided or beneficiaries of the insurance
  • Any aspect of your business ownership, including valuations, sales and new ventures
  • The overall value of your estate, other than what was anticipated in the last plan
  • You desire to change any of the following details of your will, including:
    • Executor
    • Guardian
    • Specific property bequested
    • Charitable gifts
    • Trust arrangements, including beneficiaries, trustees and ownership of property
  • Moving, even within the same state, or spending more time at a second residence
  • Your choice of beneficiaries or goals for disposition of any of your property
  • Death of any beneficiaries, including family and friends
  • Has the succession plan for your business changed?



An estate plan involves a lot more than drafting a simple will. Many people don’t complete or even start their estate plans because they don’t know how to begin. They are overwhelmed by the different items that should be in a plan.

Remember that the main goal of an estate plan is to protect both you and your family. Regardless of your age or wealth, you need an estate plan.

Revisit your estate plan even if your life situation doesn’t change. Your situation may be the same, laws may have changed.

The need to revise your estate plan means you’ve already avoided the biggest estate planning mistake: never drafting a plan at all. These checklists will ensure you have a complete plan and that it stays up to date.



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