By | May 24, 2016

Estate planning is for everyone, and everyone should strategize their estate planning.  Unfortunately, the misconception is that only people with lots of money should plan ahead.  In reality, those with less money need to strategize just as much, if not more.  You don’t have to have millions or a complicated family situation to want to strategize your estate planning, so let’s take a look at a basic estate planning checklist.

We often equate “estate” with “death”, so you might think of this planning as “death planning”, yet it is really much more than that.  Even young adults should begin thinking about an estate plan.  The time is now to start wishing for the future and setting some goals, i.e. retiring early, or having $1,000,000.00 in savings by the time you’re fifty.  Working closely with your financial advisor is a good place to start as they will help you prioritize your goals and show you how you might attain them while navigating tax and legal issues.


To begin to strategize, there are several documents needed for sound estate planning.  Meet with your lawyer to draw up your Will and Power of Attorney(s). Last Will & Testament

  • Last Will & Testament: This document is recommended for estate planning so that you can set forth your wishes, to include who will take charge of your assets upon your death, and who will receive the residue of your estate. If beneficiaries of your will are minor children, you can set up a trust, and assign a trustee and/or custodian for these assets.  Without a will, any assets you own are then subject to the laws of your state of residence.  If you have children, or are considering having children, you should be mindful of selecting a guardian. This can oftentimes be overlooked as it is assumed that the surviving spouse (parent) will be guardian.  Be careful in your selection and make sure the individual selected has similar parenting skills and shares your views.  You should be sure to name alternates for executors, trustees, and guardians.
  • Power of Attorney(s): Most estate planning attorneys will also suggest you have a Power of Attorney in place for both medical and financial decisions, in the event something catastrophic or unforeseen happens and you are no longer able to care for yourself or your finances. These are also basic documents needed for estate planning.  A durable power of attorney will give the agent the power to transact real estate and financial transactions on your behalf as if he/she was you.  You can revoke or change your designation at any time.  Note that the duties of a power of attorney cease on your death.  Many times reciprocal powers of attorney are established between husbands and wives, and in those cases, a secondary designation of another family member or trusted source can also be made in case the spouse is unable to serve.

Being prepared with a Will and Power of Attorneys can give you a peace of mind that your “estate” will be in order when the time comes.  It is a good rule of thumb to revisit these documents every 5-10 years as life situations change.


Make sure all of your investments have a named beneficiary.Beneficiaries  You can have more than one beneficiary as well as primary and secondary beneficiaries.  It is by beneficiary designation that you select who will receive the benefit of these investments upon your death.  You have the control here.  However, should you name someone other than your spouse, it is likely your spouse will need to sign a waiver.  Consult with your financial advisor to make sure all of your stocks, bonds, 401Ks, IRAs, annuities, etc. have a named beneficiary.  Note that beneficiary designations “trump” the will, so any asset that has a named beneficiary will not be an asset to be distributed amongst beneficiaries of your will.  Likewise, do not make specific bequest in your will of some asset and then designate someone else as a beneficiary.


Consider whether life insurance is right for your situation.  Many people consider it an extra expense that is not necessary, but if you carry a mortgage and something happens to the major breadwinner in the family, having the life insurance proceeds to cover mortgage payments or other debts, including burial expenses, might help those left behind to cope financially.  There are many life insurance products out there, including term, whole life, annuity based coverage, etc.  Find an insurance agent that you trust to walk you through the benefits of insurance and how that might fit into your estate plan.


Don’t wait until later in life when the kids are grown and retirement is knocking on the door.  You never know when something is going to happen, and you want to make sure your family is taken care of should something happen to you.


For individuals with potentially larger estates, relying on transfer on death designations and beneficiary designations may be insufficient.  You may also want to avoid probate administration and payment of estate tax. If you are looking at having a large nest egg, large inheritances, or other windfalls, you may want to consider a revocable living trust so that you can direct these assets during your lifetime, not just when you pass away.  This control may be important depending on your family dynamic.  There may be tax benefits, so ask your tax professional.  At the time of your passing, having a trust will help control the costs of probate and public court proceedings.

DO YOU WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE?Make a difference; leave a legacy.

Many people dream of leaving a legacy or changing the world.  There are many wonderful charities and perhaps you want to start investigating those.  Giving to charities during your lifetime can give you positive tax benefits, and setting up a foundation may also be a good funnel of your income stream that can remain in place after your die as part of your estate.  This is quite a complex decision, and again talking with your financial advisor would be a good place to start.

Strategizing your estate plan will also have a positive impact on your retirement plan.  They kind of go hand in hand.  Using the basic estate planning checklist in this article can help you begin to get your ducks in a row to make sure your financial picture is in a nice little package in the event you pass away.  Having the documents needed for estate planning in place helps you prepare for the freedom retirement will bring as you begin to rely on the assets you have accumulated.  If you have strategized well in making financial decisions, your retirement transition will be just that much smoother.  So, meet with your attorney and financial advisor soon to have the peace of mind that you are ready!

Please take a moment to add your comments or questions below.  David or I will respond promptly!  ~ Dana


  1. Stella

    This is something that we looked at later than we probably should have. We are trying to teach our children to look ahead and do some planning while they are young. Do you have any specific advice for younger people who are maybe still in college?

    Is there any point to planning before you actually have an income? Or should they wait until they are earning their own money?

    1. Dana Hagstrom Post author

      It is probably best to begin estate planning when there is income. However, having a savings plan in place when that income starts is always a good idea. There are many different rules of thumb, but saving 10% is a good place to start. Dave Ramsey would even suggest 15% savings toward retirement. Good habits are easier to start when we are young.

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