Understandably, the very phrase "estate planning" can be daunting to some, or sound like something only the very wealthy must do.

In truth, people at all income levels benefits enormously from good planning, and with the guidance of a skilled attorney the process can be simple and painless. Whether you're single, married or starting a family, estate planning is essential to ensure that you and your loved ones are protected.

Here are five legal documents you should't be without, and why:

  1. Probably the most important, a Last Will & Testament, directs how you would like property to be distributed upon your passing. In some instances this is as simple as specifying that your spouse or partner inherit all your property outright (there is a popular misconception that a surviving spouse is entitled to everything anyway, but this is not the case). In other cases, you may wish to leave a certain share or items to other family members too. For those with young children, it's best to include Trust provisions for property they may inherit, so that an adult can hold it on their behalf until they reach a responsible age. Equally important, you can include guardianship provisions so that your wishes concerning your children's care are clear. You can even provide for the care of pets you leave behind! Finally, you can name an executor; this person, with the assistance of an attorney, will ensure that the legal formalities necessary to transfer your property are completed. While some property is not governed by your Will (e.g. an IRA, life insurance, or other account on which you've completed a beneficiary designation), for most people, the vast majority of their property falls under the terms of their Wills. Brandon Robb with Delaney, Robb & Rubin advises you make sure you do it right; "It's important to work with a knowledgable attorney, so that it's done in a way that achieves your goals, and avoids being invalid if not drafted in conformity with the law."
  2. With a General Procuration - also called a "durable power of attorney" - you may designate your spouse or other person to act for you with respect to finances and other property matters if you're incapacitated but still living. These can also be used in the event you need to perform a specific transaction (e.g. purchasing a home, signing a lease, etc.) but will be away or otherwise unable to act yourself.
  3. Similarly, a Medical Power of Attorney names someone to make healthcare decisions for you if you're unable to relay your wishes directly. In both documents, it's a good idea, it's a good idea to name alternates to your first choice of agent.
  4. Additionally, an Advance Directive - also called a "Living Will" - works in tandem with your Medical Power of Attorney by specifying your wishes concerning end-of-life decisions. Often, this can alleviate the burden on loved ones of making such difficult decisions without the benefit of knowing your wishes in advance.
  5. Finally, you can execute a Declaration concerning the disposition of your remains, which can be as specific as your wish, or may be general and leave details for another to decide.

The above documents are often sufficient for many families' needs. "In some cases, we may recommend clients consider further planning, e.g. a Trust for a child with a disability or other special needs, or ways to avoid estate taxes if applicable. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and each family's uniqueness will guide us in what we recommend and prepare for our clients." Robb closes.

Brandon Robb is an attorney with Delaney, Robb & Rubin Attorneys at Law, LLC. 504.267.9700.

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