Updated: Apr 1, 2021
Before letting yourself get overwhelmed with complex estate planning decisions like transferring your property into trusts, dividing stocks between children and grandchildren, and who gets which of the most cherished and time honored family heirlooms, first take a deep breath and let's go over the basics.
Having something basic is much better than having nothing at all
When it comes to first time estate planning, don't let confusion, indecision or option anxiety turn into excuses. Even if you're not 100% sure that you have everything mapped out, you need to have something in place in case an unexpected event occurs.
At minimum, nailing down the estate planning "essentials" will get you the protections that you need right away. From there, you can always modify, expand, or refine.
Here’s how to do it:
Speak with an attorney about putting together a basic estate planning package that covers the most important documents you need for now.
Include an advanced healthcare directive. Identify someone you trust to make reasonable decisions on your behalf in case a medical emergency or illness renders you unable to decide for yourself. A lawyer will create a document, sometimes referred to as a Medical Power of Attorney, that names the trusted individual along with your particular wants and wishes for what type and level of care you wish to receive. Often times, hospitals will ask if you have one prior to undergoing planned medical procedures so having this in place is both practical and protective.
Include a Durable Power of Attorney in your basic planning. This is a document that designates an agent to act on your behalf even if you become incapacitated. The agent should be someone in your life who you know will make sound decisions as you would if the tables were turned. A lawyer will work with you to specify what powers are granted. This is a particularly important because a durable power of attorney can grant access to things like your bank accounts and other private business affairs. In case something happens to you, the agent, or "attorney-in-fact" can ensure that things will be handled properly.
Be sure to include a simple will, which can outline some basic direction for how you'd want your assets to be distributed after death, name an Executor to manage your estate, or identify long-term guardians for any minor children. A will can also give instructions for your burial wishes and can give direction on the financial resources you set aside for this purpose. You can always change your will but having something in place for now will help your family avoid the decision falling into the court's hands.
After some time, it's best to review your estate plan with your attorney and update the provisions to reflect any current life changes such as births, marriages, divorce, big purchases and more.