Legal Paperwork Cheatsheet: A Guide to the Top 12 Must-Have Documents
Whether you own a little or a lot, the last thing you want to do to your loved ones is leave a bureaucratic mess after you pass away or become incapacitated. Aside from mourning your passing or a significant deterioration in your health, this will cause the family additional stress. Heirs may forfeit life insurance payouts, tax deduction advantages, or miss accounts they did not know existed. This is why it is key to have your estate plan in place before life circumstances get the best of you.
In order to avoid problems, below is a list of a dozen documents you should start preparing right away to ensure you have a solid estate plan in place and your heirs are protected.
- A will: This is a legal document that states your final wishes in the event of death or incapacity. In this document, you name an executor to carry out your final wishes, heirs to receive assets from your estate, and a guardian for any minor children you may have.
- A trust: This is a legal agreement between you (settlor, grantor, or trust maker), the manager of your assets (trustee) and those who benefit from the trust (beneficiaries). Your assets are put into the trust and managed by the trustee on behalf of the beneficiaries, according to the terms you put in the trust document. All livingtrusts are revocable (can be easily changed) or irrevocable (cannot be easily changed) and are created and go into effect during your lifetime.
- Intent letters: These are used to add meaning and context by explaining the reasons why you want your assets distributed or invested in a particular manner. These are particularly useful when the assets are going to be divided unevenly among children or other beneficiaries/heirs.
- Personal inventory: Because most wills distribute property in terms that are general, it is important to create an inventory of your personal items to ensure nothing is overlooked and to let family members know if some items are stored in another location. You should include collections, any valuable property, as well as stories regarding family heirlooms.
- Power of attorney: This document is essential if you become incapacitated as a result of an accident or illness, because it allows a named person to make key decisions on your behalf regarding your finances and/or health care.
- Final wishes: This is particularly important and should include information regarding any pre-arrangements you have made for a funeral or cremation, organ donation, pet care, and who should be notified when you pass away.
- Identifying paperwork: These critical documents should be in kept in a safe place, and it would be a good idea to have a copy of each one. These include birth certificates, passports, marriage certificates, immigration papers, and other identifying documentation.
- Financial account list: Put together a list of all of your financial accounts. These should include any of the following: checking, savings, money markets, certificates of deposit (CDs), investments, annuity, retirement, pension, etc.
- Digital asset list: While software can be useful in keeping track of your digital assets, change of service terms can make this difficult. Instead, keep really important images or messages backed up and saved in a place where your family can access them (and know where to find them);
- House paperwork: You should retain all documents related to every real estate property that you own -closing documents, deeds, homeowners’ insurance, tax payment history, etc.
- Business ownership documents: If you own, owned, or are buying a business, you should keep all associated paperwork in a safe place. Documents should include, but may not be limited to, buy-sell agreements, stock certificates, LLC shares, operating agreements, corporate minutes, etc.
- Past tax returns: At a minimum, you should keep the last three years of tax returns and supporting documentation; if you want to be really careful, keep the seven most recent years.
If you have any questions about these important documents, or planning for your family’s financial security once you are gone, contact a knowledgeable estate planning attorney today.