Estate Planning Checklist 2023

With 2022 coming to a close, you may already be setting your sights on the new year.

What better time to start planning for the future?

Thinking about what will happen when you’re gone isn’t easy. It’s hard to think about how your loved ones will fare, how your financial affairs will be settled, and whether your wishes will truly be known.

The good news is that having an estate plan can put your mind at ease. It’s a complicated process, though, and you want to ensure your estate plan meets your needs and honors your wishes.

This estate planning checklist can help you organize your plan and navigate the complicated twists and turns of the estate planning process. However, to ensure your plan is executed correctly, enlist the help of a skilled estate planning attorney in Cinnaminson, NJ.

Why Do You Need an Estate Plan?

Whether it’s because they don’t like to think about the future or they believe their family members already know their wishes, most people aren’t prepared with a solid estate plan. The reality is without a plan in place, you may also struggle to go about getting end-of-life care without going broke.

When you do pass, your loved ones and any heirs will also be subjected to a court process called probate.

What is Probate?

Probate court oversees the settling of an estate when someone passes away. The probate process is often lengthy and costly for the heirs of the deceased person—or “decedent”—and since court proceedings are not private affairs, the details of the estate matter will be public record.

Do All New Jersey Estates Go Through Probate?

Regardless of value, all estates must go through probate in New Jersey. Still, specific estate planning strategies can protect financial assets from probate and bring the value of your estate down below the threshold for probate requirements.

Estate Planning Checklist

Since it can be overwhelming to know where to begin when planning for the future, we’ve compiled this comprehensive checklist to walk you through what steps to take and which estate planning documents you may need.

#1 Compile a List of Assets

What is the first step in estate planning? One thing you’ll want to do before taking any action is to gather together all of your financial information and create a list of all your assets and their values. This will give you a good idea of where your estate stands currently and what estate planning tools you may need.

Financial Accounts

Check the balances of all your financial accounts and tally them up. 

There are all sorts of accounts that hold intangible assets for us, and here are some common ones that shouldn’t be forgotten:

  • Savings accounts
  • Checking accounts
  • Mutual funds
  • Annuities
  • Investment accounts
  • Brokerage accounts
  • Business accounts
  • Digital assets 

Real Estate Property

Real estate is extremely valuable and will play a significant role in your estate plan. Now is a good time to get your family home, vacation home, rental properties, or any other real estate you own appraised so you know the exact value of your property.

Retirement Accounts

Similarly to financial accounts, you’ll want to total up all the assets in your retirement accounts and understand precisely how much money is in them.

Valuable Belongings

Don’t forget about valuable physical assets that belong to you when compiling your list of assets. Vehicles, boats, jewelry, artwork, and collectibles are often worth a good chunk of cash and should be included in your estate plan. Now may also be an excellent time to appraise any valuable belongings so you know exactly how much they’re worth.

# 2 Decide Who Your Beneficiaries Will Be

Beneficiary designations are an important part of the estate planning process. For some assets—such as retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and “payable on death” (POD) bank accounts—you may have already designated individual beneficiaries when you set up the account.

Double-check that those designations align with your wishes and make changes if necessary.

For any other assets, you’ll need beneficiary designations in your Last Will and Testament.

#3 Draft a Last Will and Testament

A will is the most common of the many estate planning documents out there. It’s a legal document expressing your wishes for how your estate is to be handled and how any minor children will be cared for if you pass on. The document must be in written form, signed by you, and witnessed by two other individuals.

Your will document can include many items, but it most commonly has:

  • A list of your assets
  • Named beneficiaries
  • Your wishes for your funeral service and burial
  • Who will care for minor children and other dependents 

#4 Create an Irrevocable or Revocable Living Trust

While a will expresses your wishes regarding which of your heirs should receive which assets, a will alone does not protect your estate from probate. One of the best ways to ensure your loved ones receive your assets quickly and privately is to place those assets into a trust. When you place assets into a living trust, the trust assets are no longer considered a part of your estate and are therefore protected from probate.

There are different options for trusts, but the most common are irrevocable and revocable living trusts.

With a revocable living trust, you can still retain control over those assets and make changes to which assets are in the trust and which individuals are named beneficiaries. Irrevocable trusts cannot be changed or revoked, but they have some benefits, like avoiding estate taxes. Furthermore, if the intent is to become eligible for Medicaid, then an irrevocable trust is a requirement.

An estate attorney can help you decide which type of trust best fits your needs and wishes.

#5 Designate Your Power of Attorney

When someone becomes incapacitated—whether due to illness, an accident, or advanced age—they often cannot advocate for themselves or speak on their own behalf. That’s why someone close to them needs to take over making important decisions for them. This includes financial decisions as well as medical decisions.

Designating a financial power of attorney allows you to name a trusted individual to handle your income, expenses, and any financial decisions while you’re incapacitated. However, your financial power of attorney cannot typically make medical decisions for you.

That’s why you also need to name another trusted individual to serve as your healthcare power of attorney.

#6 Create an Advance Healthcare Directive

An advanced healthcare directive is another standard legal estate planning document. It details your wishes for any medical treatments you do or do not want to be performed on you should you become incapacitated and are unable to express your wishes.

An advance healthcare directive often involves one or a combination of a few different documents:

  • A living will
  • Healthcare power of attorney (also called “medical power of attorney”)
  • Direction for life-sustaining treatments
  • Organ donation documentation
  • “Do not resuscitate” order (DNR)

#7 Store Estate Planning Documents in a Safe Place

Once you’ve spoken with an estate attorney and fine-tuned your estate plan to your wishes, you need to store your will, any other estate planning documents, and related paperwork safely and securely.

These documents should include the following:

  • The original will document
  • A revocable living trust document
  • A copy of your life insurance policy
  • Information regarding your financial accounts
  • Proof of identity documents
  • Any titles and deeds to your vehicles and properties

Be sure your spouse, adult children, or a trusted individual knows where these legal documents are stored so they can be accessed when needed.

Connect With an Experienced Cinnaminson Estate Planning Lawyer

Planning for the future isn’t easy, but once you’ve created an estate plan that you’re happy with, you’ll find that your mind will be put at ease. 

Please don’t wait until it’s too late to make a plan. Reach out to a skilled estate planning attorney today to go over your estate planning checklist and gain some much-needed peace of mind. 

Author Bio

michael s. simone, esq.

Michael Simone is the Founder and Managing Partner of the Simone Law Firm, an estate planning law firm in Cinnaminson, NJ. With more than 20 years of experience in criminal defense, he has represented clients in a wide range of legal matters, including estate planning, elder law, probate, real estate, and business law.

Michael received his Juris Doctor from the Rutgers University School of Law and is a member of the New Jersey Bar Association.

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