What documents do I need for an estate plan?

A comprehensive estate plan should include the following documents, prepared by an attorney based on in-depth counseling which takes into account your particular family and financial situation:

  • Revocable Living Trust - A Revocable Living Trust can be used to hold legal title to and provide a mechanism to manage your property. You (and your spouse) are the Trustee(s) and beneficiaries of your trust during your lifetime. You also designate successor Trustees to carry out your instructions in case of death or incapacity. Unlike a will, a trust usually becomes effective immediately after incapacity or death. Your Living Trust is "revocable" which allows you to make changes and even to terminate it. One of the great benefits of a properly funded Living Trust is the fact that it will avoid or minimize the expense, delays and publicity associated with probate.
  • Pour-Over Will - If you have a Living Trust-based estate plan, you also need a pour-over will. For those with minor children, the nomination of a guardian must be set forth in a will. The other major function of a pour-over will is that it allows the executor to transfer any assets owned by the decedent into the decedent's trust so that they are distributed according to its terms.
  • Last Will & Testament - A Last Will and Testament, also referred to as a Will, is a legal document which sets out the will maker's directions as to who should receive his or her assets upon their death. A Will also typically names someone to be your Executor, who is the person you designate to carry out your instructions. If you have minor children, you should also name a Guardian as well as alternate Guardians in case your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve. A Will only becomes effective upon your death, and after it is admitted by a probate court. When individuals pass away without a will, the State shall control how their assets are distributed. The State isn’t interested in reducing costs, streamlining the distribution of assets, or making sure that the deceased individual's wishes are carried out. This happens while the financial and family affairs are public record since the State is administering the assets as the State sees fit.
  • Power of Attorney - A Power of Attorney for Property allows you to carry on your financial affairs in the event that you become disabled. Unless you have a properly drafted power of attorney, it may be necessary to apply to a court to have a guardian or conservator appointed to make decisions for you during a period of incapacitation. This guardianship process is time-consuming, expensive, emotionally draining & often costs thousands of dollars. There are generally two types of durable powers of attorney: a present durable power of attorney in which the power is immediately transferred to your agent (also known as your attorney in fact); and a springing or future durable power of attorney that only comes into effect upon your subsequent disability as determined by your doctor. Anyone can be designated, most commonly your spouse or domestic partner, a trusted family member, or friend. Appointing a power of attorney assures that your wishes are carried out exactly as you want them, allows you to decide who will make decisions for you, and is effective immediately upon subsequent disability.
  • Medical Power of Attorney - The law allows you to appoint someone you trust to decide about medical treatment options if you lose the ability to decide for yourself. You can do this by using a Medical Power of Attorney. By creating a Medical Power of Attorney, you designate the person or persons to make such decisions on your behalf. You can allow your medical care agent to decide about all medical care or only about certain treatments. You may also give your agent instructions that he or she has to follow. Your agent can then ensure that healthcare professionals follow your wishes. Hospitals, doctors and other health care providers must follow your agent's decisions as if they were your own.
  • Living Will - A Living Will informs others of your preferred medical treatment should you become permanently unconscious, terminally ill, or otherwise unable to make or communicate decisions regarding treatment. In conjunction with other estate planning tools, it can bring peace of mind and security while avoiding unnecessary expense and delay in the event of future incapacity.
  • HIPAA Authorizations - Some medical providers have refused to release information, even to spouses and adult children authorized by durable medical powers of attorney, on the grounds that the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, prohibits such releases. In addition to the above documents, you should also sign a HIPAA authorization form that allows the release of medical information to your agents, your successor trustees, your family & other people whom you designate.