By Mia Poliquin Pross, Esq.

The first step is to select an attorney or firm with estate planning expertise and call and make an appointment. This is the most important step. Do not wait until you’re very old, very sick, or in a crisis. Think of this as a gift to yourself and your loved ones. You’ll get some peace of mind now, and you’ll make things much easier on them someday, potentially avoiding conflict and more expense. Also, your attorney may be scheduling several weeks or months out, so your appointment will probably not be right away. This gives you time to prepare.

The second step is to think of a few people you trust 100% who would be able and willing to do what’s in your best interest if you become too sick to make decisions or handle things on your own. These are the people you can name on your power of attorney documents. If you can only think of one person, that’s ok, but having at least one alternate is good planning in case something happens to your first choice. There are two different powers of attorney documents: one for financial matters, and one for health care matters. You can name the same person on both or mix it up. For example, if you have a trusted person with good financial acumen, they might manage your financial matters if you’re too sick to do so, while a friend or family member with medical experience might oversee your health care needs. Bring the contact information for these trusted people with you to your appointment.

The third step is to write down a simple list of your assets. Your assets are the things that will need to pass to other people after you die. This list may include items such as real estate, vehicles, bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments, annuities, and life insurance. When making this list, it’s helpful to note the approximate value of the asset. It is also important to note who owns each asset, like whether it is just in your name, or jointly owned with a spouse or someone else. Make note if you owe any money on the asset, such as a mortgage or car loan. If there are beneficiaries named on any accounts, that will be important to know as well. Your attorney will review this list and discuss with you the several ways assets may pass. Some assets may pass directly to joint owners or named beneficiaries, and some assets may pass through your Last Will and Testament. It may be possible to avoid probate, depending on your asset mix and ultimate wishes. Your attorney will walk you through those options. You may also discuss asset protection goals and what options would be available to you for those purposes. Everyone’s situation is different. What works well for one person, might not work well for another.

The fourth step is to decide who you want to receive each asset after you pass, or how your estate should be divided. There are numerous special considerations that you may want to keep in mind, too, that your attorney will ask you about. For example, are any of the people on your list disabled? Are any of them too young or unwise with money and in need of having their portion of the estate protected? What would you want to happen if any of the named people die before you? If you want to disinherit anyone, you should provide that information to your lawyer as well. You also need to decide who to name as Personal Representative as that person will be in charge of handling your estate when you’re gone.

The fifth step is to congratulate yourself because you have started the process. It is a lot to think about, and some of it may be emotional or unpleasant. If you get stuck on something or have missing information, don’t worry about it and just do your best. If this feels overwhelming, don’t let that stop you from making your first appointment for estate planning. A good attorney will walk you through the rest to ensure that your estate plan is complete and well-thought-out. You’ll be glad to check that item off your to-do list.

Originally published in Sun Journal Estate and Funeral Planning Guide, October 28, 2023.