Each situation varies, but almost everyone can benefit from a Will and powers of attorney (POA). Then depending on your unique situation, other tools may be added as needed.
The foundation of an estate plan is your Will. This legal document controls the distribution of your property. For families with young children, it also allows you to state your guardian preferences. From simple to quite complex, you need sound legal counsel to tailor this important document to fit your circumstances. Be cautious of DIY software programs or template forms; they can end up costing more in the long term than they save.
Powers of attorney (POA)
We frequently discuss planning for incapacity on this blog. This is when you can no longer make decisions on your own, but before you pass away. If you have no plan in place, it can become very difficult for your loved ones to complete financial transactions on your behalf or make medical treatment decisions. They may even have to go to court to request a guardianship or conservatorship.
A general financial POA lets you appoint an agent (a spouse, trusted relative or friend) to make legal and financial decisions (i.e. pay bills) for you when you are unable. Ensuring this document is “durable” is crucial so that it is effective after you become incapacitated.
You can use a medical POA to appoint an agent to decide on medical treatment when you cannot. These are more flexible that living wills and can be used to convey your wishes about quality of life issues. A good book to consult is Being Mortal by physician Atul Gawande. It documents difficult end-of-life care decisions and offers ways to begin conversations with loved ones about their preferences as well as their physicians.