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Estate Planning Essentials

For good reason, one of the most thoughtful things you can do for the people you care about is to make an estate plan. Estate planning is the process of choosing who will handle your estate if you become incapacitated and who will receive your possessions after your death, and making sure those choices are honored.

Given how complicated our lives have become, it’s essential to think ahead and consider what important legal documents you should include in your own estate plan. Here’s a summary of the documents you may need depending on your unique circumstances.

1. Last Will & Testament

The first and most important document you need is your will. For many individuals, you designate who you want to receive specific assets and property after you pass away in your will. Your tangible assets, such as your home and personal belongings, as well as your intangible assets, like your bank and investment accounts, are included in this. Your beneficiaries are the individuals who will receive your assets. They could be members of your family, close friends, or even organizations significant to you. You can specify guardians for your children and pets in your will, and choose an executor - a person or persons you trust to carry out your final desires as expressed in your will.

2. Revocable Living Trust

A revocable living trust is a legal entity you create to efficiently distribute your possessions after you pass away, just like a will. A revocable living trust “owns” the assets you place in it while granting you access to them while you are still alive.

While a revocable living trust requires more upkeep than a will, it spares your assets from the inconvenience and cost of probate (the court-supervised legal process for dispersing your assets.) A revocable living trust allows for the rapid and quiet transfer of your assets to your heirs and/or organizations after your death.

You must first draft and execute a document called a trust instrument in order to establish a revocable living trust. You will designate a successor trustee in it, who will oversee the trust after your passing. You should transfer your assets to your trust once you have signed the trust instrument.

If you have a sizable estate, operate a business, or wish to avoid probate, you will want to create a revocable living trust (typically accompanied by a pour-over will, a separate document that ensures an individual's remaining assets will automatically transfer to a previously established trust upon their death.) Revocable living trusts are common in jurisdictions like California, where the probate process can be particularly time-consuming and expensive.

3. Advance Healthcare Directive (AHCD)

If you're ever unable to make decisions about your medical care, an advanced healthcare directive allows you to specify in advance how those decisions should be made and by whom. AHCD documents normally consist of a medical power of attorney and HIPAA. In California, it is often referred to as an Advance Health Care Directive.

In the event that you are ever unable to express your medical care preferences, you can specify them in an AHCD. These preferences may relate to drugs, types of treatments, surgeries, end-of-life care, and more.

You can choose a person, known as your healthcare agent, to make healthcare choices on your behalf if you cannot do so. For instance, if you were asleep or in a coma, your agent would take over to make healthcare decisions. An AHCD lets you specify your medical preferences for a "future you" who can't.

4. Financial Durable Power of Attorney (POA)

You can legally appoint someone to manage your funds and property on your behalf by signing a financial durable power of attorney. These duties include managing your real estate property, paying your bills, and depositing money into your bank account.

If you are in a situation where you require medical attention, your financial agent may also utilize your assets to cover your medical expenses and provide for your family while you are unable to do so. Together, your financial and healthcare agents can ensure that you can pay for the medical treatment that has been recommended for you.

5. Insurance Policies & Financial Information

All of your insurance policy documentation, including those for life, health, auto, long term care, and home insurance, should be kept in one location. A list of all of your financial accounts, including access information, should also be kept. This comprises financial records such as bank accounts, credit cards, mortgages, loans, tax returns, investment portfolios, and pension plans. This data might be kept with your estate planning papers in a notebook or entered into an Excel spreadsheet.

6. Proof of Identity Documents

Having all your identification documents in one accessible location is helpful to your executor or trustee. This includes any discharge paperwork from the armed forces; your Social Security card; birth, marriage, divorce certificates; prenuptial agreements; and divorce settlements.

7. Titles & Property Deeds

Ensure that your property is covered by the correct title and deed paperwork. This applies to residences, automobiles, and other real estate. To avoid probate, if you set up a revocable living trust, you must transfer your assets to the trust. This indicates that the trust should be included in your deeds and titles as the current owner.

Remember that the names on any titles or deeds supersede your will. For instance, even if you try to leave the house to someone else in your will, if your spouse is named as a joint owner on the house deed and is still alive when you die, they would legally possess the property.

8. Digital Assets

The typical individual under the age of 70 has more than 160 digital accounts. Consider utilizing a password manager or digital vault to assist you in managing them. Your login credentials for all your online accounts are stored on these sites. Naming a digital executor in your will is also becoming popular. After your death, a digital executor oversees or cancels any digital accounts and distributes your digital assets.

9. Memorial Instructions & Wishes

This document informs your family if and how you wish to be buried and memorialized. Also included in your list of requests are texts to be read at your funeral and memorial gifts to be sent to your preferred charity. Funeral instructions are not legal paperwork, and no traditional form must be completed or notarized, in contrast to many other items on this list.


The Law Office of Joseph M. Barton has the experience and expertise to make your estate planning process simple and hassle-free. We can take care of all preparing and organizing your professional estate plan in a convenient binder with all your important documents. We even include a flash drive with a copy of your estate plan. To get started, contact us at 415-235-9162 or schedule a comprehensive attorney consultation at

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