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Estate Planning Basics for Beginners: Your Intro Guide

Estate planning is one of those topics that feels easy to avoid. Between all the legalese and paperwork, plus the unpleasant factor of having to confront your own mortality, most people put it off. We get it—thinking about death is no fun at all.

But here’s the hard truth: failing to properly plan your estate can create immense headaches, hassles, and conflicts for your loved ones down the road. Not having affairs in order means your assets could get tied up in court, your final wishes could be ignored, and your family may face difficult legal processes during an already heartbreaking time.

The good news? With some basic estate planning in place, you can avoid all of that unnecessary drama. You’ll rest easy knowing you’ve clearly outlined how you want things handled when you’re gone or if you become incapacitated. It’s the greatest gift you can leave for your loved ones.

Not sure where to start with this whole estate planning thing? We’ve got you covered. Here are the key elements every beginner should understand:

Write a Will

This is estate planning 101. Every adult needs a will. A will is a legally binding document that spells out how you want your assets distributed after death. It names beneficiaries for things like investments, property, family heirlooms, and more. You’ll also use your will to designate guardians for minor children.

Without a valid will in place, a court will decide how to divide your assets according to state intestacy laws. Those decisions may not align with your wishes. Your loved ones could also face messy legal battles over your estate.

Consider a Revocable Living Trust

While a will is a must, many people opt to go a step further by creating a revocable living trust. With this setup, you transfer your assets into the trust, maintaining full control over them while you’re alive. When you die, the trust assets get distributed to beneficiaries according to your wishes—all without going through probate court.

This offers some key advantages, including:

  • Avoiding the expensive and lengthy probate process
  • Potential tax savings on portions of your estate
  • More privacy, since trust assets don’t become part of public record
  • Reduced chances of family conflicts over your estate
  • Assets can be distributed to heirs immediately after death

Name Powers of Attorney

Part of estate planning involves preparing for potential incapacity. You’ll want to designate powers of attorney agents to make legal, financial, and healthcare decisions on your behalf. A durable power of attorney for healthcare covers medical matters, while a durable power of attorney for finances handles your assets and legal/business affairs.

These legal arrangements ensure there’s no question about who has authority to act in your best interests if you become incapacitated. It alleviates stress and infighting among loved ones during already difficult circumstances.

Create Advance Healthcare Directives

This estate planning component addresses another “what if” scenario: what kind of medical interventions and care do you want if you’re facing terminal illness or permanent unconsciousness? An advance healthcare directive like a living will lays out your preferences for things like life support, feeding tubes, palliative care, and more. The directive ensures your wishes get carried out regarding prolonging life versus discontinuing treatment.

You can also name a healthcare proxy. That’s someone authorized to communicate with doctors and make care decisions on your behalf. Having these preferences documented upfront takes a huge burden off loved ones agonizing over treatment choices.

Name a Digital Executor

These days, our lives are largely digital with areas including social media, email, online banking, and more. When we pass away, those digital assets need to be managed. Naming a digital executor gives a trusted individual legal authority to access accounts, back up data, settle online affairs, and eventually shut everything down.

This is often an overlooked component of estate planning, but it’s an increasingly important one. No one wants their digital footprint and assets lingering in limbo forever after they’ve passed.

Keep Beneficiary Designations Updated

Here’s a key estate planning mistake many people make: forgetting to update beneficiary designations as life circumstances change.

Say you listed your sister as beneficiary on a life insurance policy years ago while single. But now you’re married with children. Unless you update that beneficiary information, your sister would receive the policy proceeds after your death—not your spouse or children.

Major life events like marriage, divorce, births, and deaths should always trigger estate plan reviews and updates to beneficiary designations. Otherwise, your assets may not go where you want them to.

Store Documents Safely

You’ve gone through the whole estate planning process and finalized all your legal documents. Now what? Don’t just toss everything in a drawer and forget it! Deeds, titles, wills, powers of attorney—all these crucial papers need to be stored securely where your executor or loved ones can easily access them when needed.

Some people even save digital copies to a password-protected online storage account as an additional backup. The last thing you want is for your estate plan to be missing in action.

Getting started with estate planning may not be fun, but it absolutely is one of the most important things you can do for your family. With the right framework in place long before it’s needed, you’ll sleep soundly knowing your affairs will be managed exactly according to your wishes.If you need assistance creating or updating an estate plan, don’t go it alone. Reach out to our experienced estate planning team today. We’ll walk you through every step to craft a comprehensive estate plan that secures your legacy.

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Houck Menninger Law, LLC (“HM Law”) has placed the information on this website as a service to the general public. Use of this website does not in any manner constitute an attorney‐client relationship between HM Law and the user. While the information on this site is about legal issues, it is not intended as legal advice or as a substitute for the specific advice of your own attorney. Anyone seeking specific legal advice or assistance should retain an attorney. This website may also include inaccuracies or typographical errors and may not otherwise be up-to-date.

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