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The Top Ten Legal Steps To Take Before You Die

No one likes to think about dying. It’s a complicated topic, and your family may try to avoid it, making planning difficult. The end is inevitable for everyone, and planning for what might happen can prevent problems that may arise only after we pass away. Taking the necessary steps to protect our families and assets can help relieve some of the anxiety.

Even if you think you have little right now to pass on to your surviving spouse or children, it never hurts to assess your property and decide how you want your assets handled. Below are ten legal steps to take before you die to protect your family, loved ones, and legacy.

For simple estate planning situations, there are low-cost do-it-yourself (DIY) willsliving wills, and powers of attorney, which can be found on our companion site, FindLaw.com. If you want more legal advice, you can talk to an older adult law attorney or estate planning law firm for help with your situation.

1. Hire an Estate Planning Attorney

Some estate planning can be done on your own, with some simple forms. However, you should talk to a lawyer to ensure the critical documents are legal and enforceable. An estate planning attorney knows all the tools of the trade and can best advise you on how to protect your assets and those you love by creating valid legal documents such as a will and revocable trust.

Estates, wills, and trust law can be complex. Even probate courts can misinterpret the language of your will, which could result in costly legal battles and family disputes. Estate laws are also different in every state. The best way to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled is to have an experienced estate planning lawyer on your side.

2. Write a Will

A will is the cornerstone of most estate plans and must meet specific statutory requirements to be enforceable. A last will and testament may be used to distribute specific property to specific beneficiaries, such as real property, antiques, jewelry, or items in a safe deposit box. A will can also provide for distributing the rest of your personal property that is not explicitly named elsewhere in your will or estate plan.

If you die without a will or intestate, your estate will go through a legal system called the probate process, under which courts and state laws will decide where your assets go. Under state intestacy laws, the property will be distributed according to family relationship instead of where you want your property to go. If you don’t have anyone that qualifies under state laws, the property will go to the state.

You can also name a personal representative in your will to handle administering the decedent’s estate. If you die without a will, the court will name a personal representative.

3. Purchase Life Insurance

Whether you work outside the home or stay at home, it is vital to consider the income or services you provide to your family. How will they replace that income after you die? A good life insurance policy can take care of everything from simple funeral expenses to years of financial security for your family.

You may also want to consider disability insurance that could cover you in case you become disabled or incapacitated and are no longer able to provide for your family.

4. Appoint a Guardian for Your Minor Children

This is among the most essential things you can do to protect your family in the event of your death. Guardianship involves legally appointing someone to be a caretaker for someone who cannot care for themselves. Parents should consider a guardian if a tragic accident happens and both parents are taken.

You can identify a specific family member and talk to them before naming them as a guardian to be sure they are willing and understand your wishes. After making plans for a guardian, you will feel secure knowing that someone will care for your children – and that someone will be the person that you choose to care for them. Without guardianship, the state will determine who will be responsible for your child.

5. Create a Trust

You could pass on money or real estate to your children through your will, but a revocable trust may be a better tool for handling your property after you pass away. A trust can avoid the long process of probate and will allow the property to pass directly, keeping your affairs private.

You can also create trusts for specific purposes or with certain provisions. For example, you may hold money in a trust for your children until they reach a certain age or after graduating from school. A trust can also help protect assets from creditors or limit payouts. Trusts come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, including living trusts, irrevocable trusts, and special needs trusts. A qualified estate planning attorney can help you decide which type of trust is right for you.

6. Create a Power of Attorney

A durable power of attorney designates someone to handle your business and financial affairs if you become incapacitated. In general, this person acts as a fiduciary and makes the choices you would, if you were able, to act in your best interests. You can create a broad power of attorney or limit the power of attorney to only covering specific issues.

7. Create a Living Will and Health Care Proxy

While a general power of attorney applies to financial decisions, these documents allow doctors to provide the medical care you want if you cannot verbally direct them to give that care. A living will or advance directive provides specific directives regarding what medical care you do or do not want in certain situations, including nursing home and end-of-life care.

A health care proxy is a document that appoints a specific person to make medical decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. This can include a family member, close friend, or someone who understands your medical wishes.

8. Consider Charitable Contributions

You may provide certain assets to the charity of your choice in the form of a trust or in your will. If you have a favorite charity you want to support or a tax deduction, consider making charitable contributions from your estate.

9. Make Sure Beneficiaries Are Named on All Assets Which Pass Outside of the Estate

Certain assets, like life insurance policies, bank accounts, pensions, and certain retirement accounts, such as IRAs, can pass outside your estate. These accounts and policies generally provide for naming one or more beneficiaries who can take the assets directly after the account holder’s date of death. Review these named beneficiaries after significant life changes, like a divorce or childbirth.

10. Review Your Estate Plan Every Few Years

If you’ve taken all the preceding nine steps, great work! But you’re not done yet. As your family and financial situations change, so should your estate plan. Be sure your estate plan documents are updated to reflect your current testamentary intentions.

For example, you might get married and wish to provide for your new spouse, or you may have a child with disabilities for whom you want to provide more financially than your other children. Similarly, your net worth may dramatically change, making it more important to use appropriate estate planning tools to minimize your estate taxes and maximize the amount of money that goes to your beneficiaries.

These ten steps will help put you on the right path to plan for the future if anything might happen to you. A strong estate plan can also provide security and predictability for your family members and beneficiaries. If you need advice on building the right estate plan, consult an estate planning lawyer in your area.

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