What happens to your estate when you die?

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It may not be a fun thing to think about or talk about, but it’s important to get your estate planning organized. Unfortunately, death doesn’t just happen to other people. We should all get our affairs in order so that our loved ones can focus on grieving and moving on once we pass.

Of course, a “getting your affairs in order before death checklist” may not rank as the ultimate way to kick off a relaxing weekend, but you will rest easy once it’s all said and done. Luckily, it’s not nearly as painful as you might think. It can be less painful than doing your taxes every year. Here, we break it down for you into 12 steps.

Related: What happens to your debt when you die?

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12 Estate Planning Must-Haves

Estate planning isn’t just something for retirees or people with multiple homes. All of us need to take this step and determine how and by whom decisions will be made if we are incapacitated or near the end of our life. We also need to funnel our assets to the appropriate people when our time on earth is over.

It can sound grim, we grant you that, but it’s actually a gift to your loved ones to get all of this taken care of. So let us take you through the dozen items to wrangle so you know your affairs are in order.

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1. Last Will and Testament

This is super-important because it outlines how your estate (your assets) will be divided. A will is a legal document that serves a couple of important functions. Wills are mainly used to specify how you want to distribute your assets. Assets can include things like personal property, real estate, cars, bank accounts, art, jewelry, or stocks. Despite what some people think, you can give your assets to anyone. You aren’t limited to immediate family. You can even donate your assets to charities or nonprofits if you wish.

A will also ensure that the people you care about are taken care of after you have passed away. If you have any children, a will can name whom you intend to become their guardians if you die. It can also do the same for pets.

You can create a will online using digital tools (you will need it signed and witnessed, though) or work with an attorney, often for under $1,000, to create one.

Recommended: What Happens If You Die Without A Will?

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2. Proof of Identity

When the time comes for a will to be put into effect, an executor of the estate plays a crucial role. This individual, who you can name in your will, carries out your will’s instructions. To help this person do their job, make sure you have all of your IDs in one place. Documents you will want to have may include:

  • Birth certificate
  • Social security card
  • Armed forces discharge papers
  • Marriage certificate
  • Prenuptial agreement
  • Divorce certificate

This will make following your directives that much easier.

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3. Digital Logins and Passwords

In recent years, our digital lives have become inextricably woven into our “real life.” It’s not uncommon for people to have dozens of digital accounts, containing vital information about our assets. Should you fall ill or suddenly die, your loved ones will likely need to access some of them. For example, you may have financial account information there, and email may be how you interact with some of your closest friends and colleagues. Fortunately, there are many ways to properly document and keep track of your online accounts.

Whether you use a digital vault, an integrated password manager, or simply pen and paper, you should establish a system for your loved ones. You can pass this information along to your financial power of attorney to deal with, or you can name a digital executor to close your accounts and distribute your assets.

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4. Property Deeds and Titles

Any titles you have for cars, homes, or real estate need to be gathered and put in a safe place. Details on that “safe place” need to be shared with one or two key people in your life, like your next of kin and/or your will’s executor.

However, just gathering these items doesn’t mean you can necessarily spare your loved ones the process known as probate. Probate is a potentially complicated and expensive process in which a deceased person’s property is reviewed and allocated. Having a will is of course an important step, but with real estate, for example, things can get complicated even with that document in place. To skip the probate process, you can create a revocable living trust (which is discussed below), and then transfer ownership of your properties to it and list the trust as the current owner.

It’s important to remember that any names on titles or deeds will overrule anything you write in a will. For example, if you bought a car with your ex-wife a few years before you got a divorce and her name is still on the title, it won’t matter whose name you write in your will. She will inherit the car because it is her name that is on the title.

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5. Revocable Living Trust

Above, we mentioned the potentially drawn-out and expensive process of probate and why you would want to take steps now to help your loved one’s avoid it later. Let’s drill down on one way to do just that. A revocable living trust is a type of legal instrument that allows you to use and control your property while you’re alive, but also change who inherits it at will. If you have one legally established, it allows all of the assets you entrust to it to skip probate, meaning your beneficiaries can receive your assets much more quickly.

After you’ve created a revocable living trust, you must also name a ‘successor trustee’ to manage your trust. This person will be responsible for distributing your assets to the proper beneficiaries.

Recommended: What Is A Trust Fund?

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6. Debts

It would be nice if all debts vanished when our lives ended, but, sorry, that’s not how things work. Your beneficiaries are going to need to know about and potentially address your debts (these are often paid out from your estate before the remaining assets are distributed). To smooth the process, compile a list of all your debts. This may include things like:

  • Auto loans
  • Credit cards
  • Mortgages” href=”https://mediafeed.org/money/mortgages/” data-wpil-keyword-link=”linked”>Mortgages
  • Personal loans
  • Student loans

On your list include contact information for the lender, your account number, login information, and approximate debt amount. For credit cards, include a list of frequently used credit cards and ones you simply have but rarely use. If you have a lot of open cards in your name, and aren’t quite sure how many you have, you may want to get a free credit report from Annual Credit Report.

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7. Non-probate Assets and Beneficiaries

If you have assets that are able to skip probate, meaning they can be transferred directly to the named beneficiaries after you die, then you should keep up to date on naming beneficiaries (say, if a death or divorce has occurred) and keep a list of these assets with account details. Which details exactly? Details like where any paperwork or policies are, account numbers, and contact information for the issuing entity are a good place to start.

Non-probate assets include such things as:

  • Insurance policies
  • 401(k) accounts and IRAs
  • Pensions

Non-probate assets should not be listed in your will because any designations you make with each institution will override anything you write anyway.

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8. Financials

While you are gathering all of your estate materials, make sure to keep a neat list of all your login and password information for the following:

  • Bank accounts
  • Car insurance
  • Credit cards
  • Health insurance
  • Home insurance
  • Life insurance
  • Loans
  • Pension plans
  • Retirement benefits
  • Tax returns

If everything is online, you may want to make sure every account is listed along with your other digital accounts in your password manager or digital vault.

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9. Advance Healthcare Directive

An advance healthcare directive (also known as an AHCD) allows you to decide, in advance, how medical decisions should be made on your behalf if you are unable to communicate your wishes. AHCDs typically have two parts: designating a medical power of attorney (you may also hear this called a healthcare proxy; we share more on this below) and a living will.

A living will describes and outlines your medical care wishes just in case you are ever unable to communicate them to your healthcare providers or loved ones. It can describe any aspect of healthcare preferences, and can include things like:

  • End-of-life requests
  • Medications
  • Resuscitation requests
  • Surgeries and surgical procedures

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10. Power of Attorney

This is an important part of putting together your estate-planning checklist. The goal here is typically to make sure that, if you were incapacitated (say, due to dementia or a medical emergency), someone could act on your behalf. When you give someone power of attorney, that person then has legal authority to manage all of your affairs. There are two types of power of attorney: financial and medical.

A financial power of attorney is responsible for:

  • Accessing your bank accounts to pay for healthcare, bills, groceries, and any other housing needs you have
  • Collecting upon any debts you have
  • Filing taxes on your behalf
  • Applying for benefits, such as Medicaid
  • Making investment decisions on your behalf
  • Managing any properties you own

A medical power of attorney (also sometimes referred to as a healthcare proxy) is responsible for:

  • Choosing which doctors or care providers you see
  • Deciding what type of medical care you receive
  • Will advocate if there are disagreements about your care

It’s not uncommon for one person to be designated as both a financial and medical power of attorney, but they don’t have to be the same person. It often provides tremendous peace of mind to know you have designated who will look after your best interests in the situations outlined above.

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11. Funeral Wishes

OK, take a deep breath for this one. It may sound morbid at first, but wouldn’t you want your earthly remains and any celebration of your life to reflect your wishes? So it can make sense to spell out what you want to happen to your body (say, burial, cremation, organ donation).

You can also detail funeral wishes. This typically includes things like what type of music you want to be played or passages to be read, and you can even specify that you want charitable donations instead of flowers.

Whatever you decide, just make sure you communicate your wishes. Unlike other things on this list, there isn’t a formal, legal document you need to sign, but you can usually include your wishes somewhere in your will.

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12. Speak with an Estate Planner

Now that you’ve read almost all of this estate planning checklist, you should still consider getting some skilled guidance. Even if you’re completely comfortable writing up legal documents, it’s a good idea to visit an estate planner to make sure you’ve covered all of your bases. He or she may have recommendations for you that can save everyone money and better protect your beneficiaries.

Recommended: Estate Planning 101: The Basics of Estate Planning

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The Takeaway

While it can be a difficult topic to think about, estate planning takes time and patience. If you have children, dependents, or a spouse, clear up a weekend and do it as soon as possible. Life happens fast even in the best of circumstances

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