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Document Essentials for Every Estate Plan

Document Essentials for Every Estate Plan

a documents folder, estate planning

A solid estate plan covers everything from the end of life care to the disposition of assets. Preparing and storing these documents in advance is essential for ensuring that every possibility and eventuality is addressed and resolved. Because these documents cover everything from healthcare to finances, it is essential to prepare and complete them with the assistance of an estate attorney.


This core document is crucial regardless of the size of the estate. It identifies the physical, financial, and digital assets an individual has and dictates how those assets should be distributed among beneficiaries to the estate. It also dictates personal wishes such as the final disposition of remains, burial locations, etc. The more thorough and detailed the itemization and wording within the will, the less likely it is to be challenged in probate after an individual passes away.


There are many types of trust that can shield assets such as vacation property from estate taxes. An estate attorney can help individuals set up the right trust so that retirement accounts, disbursements from insurance policies, and distributions from investment accounts don’t get eaten up by taxes and fees. These include revocable trusts, irrevocable trusts, asset protection trusts, charitable trusts, special needs trusts, spendthrit trusts, tax bypass trust, or a Totten trust. Choosing the right trust can help ensure that heirs receive their designated share of the estate and can help expedite the probate process.

Durable Power of Attorney

There are two types of durable power of attorney that every estate plan should include. The first is a power of attorney for healthcare decisions. This grants a designated party the ability to make healthcare decisions on behalf of the individual. The second is a power of attorney for financial matters which grants the designated party the authority to pay for medical expenses. In both cases, these documents can be structured to cover “what if” scenarios such as the individual becoming incapacitated, suffering diminished mental faculties, etc.

Both of these documents should be prepared long before any potential problems arise. This helps ensure that neither will be challenged on the grounds that the individual was not of sound mind and body at the time the documents were created. As with all documents, these may be rescinded or altered at any time by the principal party as circumstances evolve and their needs and desires change.

Letter of Intent

It’s advisable to include a Letter of Intent with the documentation. This letter addressed to the executor of the estate, the beneficiaries, or both, identifies the principal’s final wishes in regards to the distribution of assets. This document can help clarify the principal’s final wishes and can serve to defend the distribution of assets should they be challenged during probate.

The Letter of Intent should include a full list of liquid and tangible assets and their locations. It should also include an up-to-date listing of passwords and PIN numbers for email, retirement, investment, and charge accounts. This can help executors locate and secure assets quickly.

It’s also advisable to include information regarding preferred charities and the contact information for the principal’s bankers, brokers, attorneys, and financial managers.

Designated Guardianship in Advance of Need

Whether married or unmarried, principals who have children under the age of majority, or adult children with disabilities, absolutely must have a Designation of Guardian in Advance of Need. This document serves as the basis for determining where the child will go and how they will be cared for should the principal pass away or become incapacitated.

A similar document may also be used to appoint a guardian for the principal. This document identifies who will tend to the care, supervision, and medical treatment of the principal should they become incapacitated.

Storing and Securing Documentation

It is advisable to make several copies of these documents and keep them together as a package in multiple locations. At a minimum, one copy should be stored under lock and key at home, one copy should be kept by the principal’s estate attorney, and one copy should be kept within a safe deposit box. Many individuals also choose to deliver one copy to the executor of the estate.

Should the principal alter or amend any of the documents, it is important to update and amend all of the copies. This can resolve conflict and confusion when the time comes to put the principal’s estate plan into action.

Preparing these documents is not just for the elderly or the wealthy. These documents should be prepared and secured by every adult regardless of age, income, or net worth. While there are many “cookie cutter” options available on the internet, it is important to have these documents drawn up and reviewed by an estate attorney as that is the only way to ensure that the aspects and contingencies specific to the principal are properly addressed and covered within the estate plan.

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