Estate planning can be complex, or it can be very simple. Much of it depends on the size of your estate, that is, your net worth, and how complicated you want to make your estate plan. Most of my clients have very simple estate plans that consist of the 3 must-have documents: Power of Attorney, Advance Directive for Health Care, and Last Will and Testament.

Make Things Easy for Your Family

If you want life to be easy for your family when you are gravely ill or after your death, these are the three must-have estate planning documents. When you talk with an attorney in your state or community about your needs and goals for your estate plan, she may recommend more documents that will be best for you, but these 3 are the basics. There are other documents, such as a trust, that may need to be included as part of your estate plan to achieve your personal goals. There is not a “one size fits all” approach to estate planning, so it’s important to talk with a local estate planning attorney about your individual and family needs. Your needs will be different from those of your sister, neighbor, friend, work out buddy, or pastor. So, please, don’t rely on internet research or coffee talk, spend an hour with a licensed attorney in your state or community who can tailor an estate plan for you.

Estate Plan Example

As an example, newly married “older” couple will soon have their first baby. They each had houses and other assets in their individual names when they married. They wanted only a Last Will and Testament, Power of Attorney, and Advance Directive for Health Care (the 3 MUST Have documents). That is sufficient to protect them as a married couple to ensure that each other inherits from the other, but what they really need is a trust because they have houses in their individual names and, with a child on the way, they need to better protect their child’s inheritance by structure how and when she is to receive her inheritance.

Last Will and Testament

You’ve likely heard of a Last Will and Testament. This is a legal document that directs, per your wishes, who inherits your assets. It gives you control of who gets all that you have accumulated in your lifetime. If you did not have this document, all your assets would pass to people pursuant to the State’s laws – and that may not be what you want for you family and assets. Perhaps you may be estranged from a child or want to give money to a charity, you can control those things in a Will, but if you don’t have a Will, that child will still inherit, and that charity is out of luck.

If you have young children, the Last Will & Testament can name Guardians, the people who will raise your children in the event both you and the other parent die. This is a crucial decision that you don’t want to leave to the courts to decide.

The Last Will and Testament will name a Personal Representative, the person who will manage your estate and ensure your wishes are carried out. The powers and duties of the Personal Representative will be set out in the Will, hopefully giving him or her all the authority needed to handle selling your home, dividing personal property, and dividing money in accounts (if there was not a payable/transferable on death beneficiary named).

Power of Attorney

A Power of Attorney is a crucial document to have. This is a legal document that appoints someone, called your “Agent,” to act on your behalf as to finances, medical decisions, real estate matters, and other matters. The Power of Attorney “dies” when you do, that is, it is no longer valid after your death.

This document is crucial because you never know when you might be in a car accident, have a medical emergency, or for some other reason be out of pocket and not be able to run to the bank to take care of an issue or talk to the utility company about a billing error, or ensure that someone is paying your bills while you are in the hospital receiving care. If you have children, you need this document because it will name guardians for your children if you are still alive, but unable to care for them temporarily.

Be sure you name someone you trust and who will look out for your best interests.

Advance Directive for Health Care

This legal document declares your wishes as to your end-of-life care and decisions. The Advance Directive for Health Care is only used if you are at the end of your life, or need special measures taken just to keep you alive. This is not for other medical procedures or temporary unconsciousness.

The decision whether or not to have life sustaining measures (measures that only keep you alive, they dot cure you) is difficult for many people. Don’t be surprised if you get emotional thinking through the options and decision that must be made this document. This document allows you to designate a person or persons, called a “Proxy”, to make the decisions for you, or instruct the medical personnel as to your wishes, if you are unable to tell the doctors yourself. This is one reason this document is so important – you want the person making the decisions to be someone who knows your wishes and has your best interest at heart. Would you want an estranged spouse or child making a life ending decision for you?

The Advance Directive for Health Care not only states your wishes as to whether to receive life sustaining treatment, it also addresses whether you want water and nourishment through an IV, and if you have any other special instructions. Some “other” instructions clients have requested to be in the Advance Directive is to have a priest called for last rites, no blood transfusion, cremation, organ donation, and “natural” burial.

Estate Planning Attorney

I am a licensed attorney in Alabama whose primary area of practice is estate planning. My experience and legal knowledge is based on more than 20 years as a lawyer in Alabama.  Each state has its own set of laws around estate planning documents. There are other documents that may be necessary for your estate plan, something you won’t know until you talk to someone in your state or community.

Call an Estate Planning Attorney

As previously stated, you need to speak with a licensed attorney in your state and community about your assets, wishes, and goals for your estate plan. Unless you want something complex, the estate planning process shouldn’t take too long nor cost too much. Do yourself a favor and spend just one hour in a consult with a licensed attorney in your state or community who can answer questions about your life, family, and estate plan. A one hour consult with a lawyer and a properly executed estate plan can save you and your family a lot of stress, excess grief, and thousands of dollars.

The Alabama State Bar requires the following: no representation is made that the quality of legal services to be performed is greater than those performed by other lawyers.

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