What is an Estate Plan? You’re Not Too Young to Learn

Follow these basic estate planning steps to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Many working professionals think estate planning is something they can postpone until retirement. While it’s natural to avoid thinking about the end of life at this stage, taking a few steps now can give you a solid foundation that you can build on as your circumstances change.

You don’t need to have huge bank account balances or vast real estate holdings to benefit from an estate plan. Estate planning is an ongoing process that includes specifying who can make health care decisions and organize financial information on your behalf in case of an emergency. These decisions are important at any age. Without them, your family and friends may be left guessing about your wishes if you die or become incapacitated.

Whatever your life stage, you can design an estate plan that will bring you clarity and peace of mind. Here’s how to get started.

1. Gather Your Information

People often keep valuable personal and financial information stored across multiple folders and online files, thinking they’ll organize it when they have more time. Imagine how difficult it might be for family members to find your Social Security card or the details of your retirement accounts if you were unable to tell them where to look.

To create an orderly system, draft a document with your personal information, such as your full legal name, Social Security number, legal residence, and date and place of birth. Add copies of any government records, such as a birth or marriage certificate. List names and phone numbers of contacts such as your spouse, children, close friends, lawyers, financial advisors: anyone you would want notified if something happened to you. Include any other information someone else would need to handle your responsibilities. For example, if you have a pet, include your veterinarian’s contact information.

Next, gather your financial records. These might include bank and brokerage statements and account numbers, insurance information, retirement benefit summaries, mortgage details, credit card names and numbers, and a copy of your most recent income tax return. If you normally access your bank and brokerage statements online, also make a list of your account usernames and passwords.

Once you’ve compiled this information, tell someone that you trust where they can find it in an emergency. You might set a calendar reminder to periodically review the information for updates or changes.

2. Discuss Your Health Care Preferences

People who document in writing what kinds of medical treatment they would want – and would not want – in an emergency or at the end of their lives are more likely to get the type of care they would prefer. Planning for these decisions also helps your family if you are incapacitated.

Research the medical treatments that doctors may use to keep a person alive in an emergency, as well as the options available for end-of-life care. It may be helpful to talk through different scenarios with your doctor and with family members.

Then, create an advance directive: a legal document that takes effect if you are too ill to speak for yourself. A typical advance directive has two main elements. The first is a living will, which explains to doctors how you want to be treated in various situations if you cannot make your own decisions. The second is a durable power of attorney for health care, which names a representative to make medical decisions for you if you are incapacitated. Inform your family and your doctor about your advance directive, and make sure they know how to get this information in an emergency.

3. Prepare Your Finances

Once you set up a durable power of attorney for health care, you also may want to establish a durable financial power of attorney. This person, who could be your spouse or another trusted representative, can access your financial accounts on your behalf if you are alive but unable to make decisions.

After your death, most of your assets, including your personal possessions, become part of your estate. A state probate court will review your estate to make sure your creditors are paid and your assets are distributed to the appropriate people. Writing a will helps that process go smoothly by creating a clear map of your intentions.

In your will, which an attorney should help you create, first list any charitable donations you would like to make and who you want to receive your assets. If you intend to leave specific items to particular people, be sure to include these details. Second, name an executor, a trustworthy family member or friend who has agreed to oversee the process of settling your debts, paying taxes on your behalf, and distributing your assets. If you have children who are not yet adults, name their guardians in your will as well.

For many people, your most valuable financial asset will be your retirement accounts, such as an IRA or 401(k). In most cases, if you have named beneficiaries on these accounts, these assets will go to those beneficiaries, regardless of what you write in your will.

If you have significant financial assets or more complex circumstances, it might be helpful to talk to your financial advisor and attorney about creating a trust, a legal structure that allows a person to transfer assets to another person or organization. A trust does not go through probate court, and it immediately transfers property to the trustee after your death for distribution based on the terms of the trust.

4. Consider Your Digital Legacy

A modern estate plan needs to account for how much of our lives are spent online. Your family may want to access particular emails to remember you or save copies of photos stored on your social media accounts. You also may have your own wishes about what should be saved or deleted from your accounts after you are gone.

Under the law, you do not own your digital accounts – you only license them. Each company has its own policies for handling accounts of members who have died. However, many states have adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which grants both the digital companies and your executor various rights to the digital data. It is best to provide in your will, power of attorney, trust and a letter of instruction for your executor about downloading photos, archiving emails, or deleting online accounts before they are no longer accessible. Include a list of your email and social media accounts and login information.

Because online passwords can change frequently, it may be helpful to use an online password manager to store and update them. In that case, your executor would only need to know how to log in to the password manager account.

5. Review and Update Regularly

Creating the original plan is the most intensive part. Afterwards, if you get married, have children, move to a different state or country, or experience other milestones, you’ll be able to easily adjust your plan to reflect your new goals and preferences.

Once a year, review the beneficiaries listed on your retirement accounts and insurance policies. For example, if you listed your parents as beneficiaries when you signed up for the accounts, and then you enter a long-term relationship, you might change the beneficiary to your spouse or partner.

Update your will every three to five years, or any time you have a major change in your life. By law, a new will supersedes any older versions, but you also can include a statement in the new will specifically stating that you are revoking the old one.

Creating your estate plan now will help you prepare your assets and protect your loved ones, and will let you guide important decisions about your health and finances if you are ever unable to. As your life progresses, revisit and modify the plan to fit your current circumstances.

Get started with our estate planning checklist.