Where to start when creating an estate plan

Editor’s note: This is the first column of a three-part series.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made Americans even more aware of the importance of planning for the unexpected. While no one knows what’s in store for the future, one thing you can do for your loved ones is create an estate plan that expresses your wishes in the event of incapacity or death.

If you’re like a lot of people, you might not know where to start, but here are five documents that can form the foundation of a well-thought-out estate plan:

Last will and testament

This is the primary document that defines how you want your property and other assets to be handled. It also assigns guardians for minor children and even pets and it provides a place where you can name your executor, the person who will manage the dissolution of your estate.

Your will also can include directions regarding your funeral arrangements, such as whether you prefer to be buried or cremated.

Power of Attorney (POA)

This legal document identifies an “agent” or person who can act on your behalf. You can choose to be very specific or very broad in the authority you assign to the POA.

In some cases, a different family member can be POA for finances and/or personal property while another person is assigned to make decisions regarding medical care.

Living will

Also known as an advanced health care directive, a living will convey your wishes regarding end-of-life medical care. It spells out the extent of life-extending care you want to receive in case you are unable to communicate these preferences yourself.

For example, you can request that medical personnel perform invasive life-saving procedures such as resuscitation or tube feeding as needed. Alternately, you can put in place a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order and request only comfort care.

Beneficiary designations

Beneficiary designations identify who you wish to receive a particular asset. These designations typically are made within the financial asset itself, such as a life insurance policy or an investment account.

It’s important to keep your beneficiary designations up-to-date following a life change such as marriage, divorce, death of a spouse or birth of a child.

Inventory of key documents and contacts

Once you have the top four legal documents in place, it’s prudent to think about how your loved ones will access your accounts once you’re gone. A document that lists everything from mortgages and other bills to bank accounts, insurance policies and other legal proof can be very helpful.

Your executor will need passwords for accounts and might need physical copies of birth, marriage, divorce and Social Security records.

Lastly, provide complete contact information for relevant parties such as your banker, lawyer, financial adviser and insurance agent.

Although conversations about estate planning can be difficult, they’re critical to leaving the legacy you want. Talk with a trusted financial advisor who can review your entire financial picture and determine what steps you need to take to safeguard your estate. Part two of the Estate Planning series will cover five mistakes to avoid when naming beneficiaries.