There are dozens of estate planning documents in an estate planning attorney’s “toolbox”.  Which documents to use for a particular family depends on several factors including but not limited to, familial structure, assets, familial concerns and age.

In this blog, I would like to cover some very basic estate planning documents that just about everyone needs.

First of all, there are documents that are operative during your life.  I often refer to these documents as “living documents”.  Two living documents that everyone over the age of eighteen should have are a Durable Power of Attorney and a Health Care Proxy.

A Durable Power of Attorney is a legal document wherein you name an agent to make legal and financial decisions for you in the event that you are no longer able to make those decisions for yourself.  I highly recommend naming an agent as well as an alternate agent to act in the event that your primary agent is unwilling or unable to act.  I cannot stress the importance of this simple document.  If you do not have a Durable Power of Attorney and you are unable to make financial and legal decisions for yourself, someone in your family will need to go to court to apply for something called a conservatorship.  The conservatorship will allow them to make legal and financial decisions for you but the process is expensive and time consuming and can be easily avoided by putting a Durable Power of Attorney in place ahead of time.

A Health Care Proxy is a legal document wherein you name an agent to make medical decisions for you in the event that you are no longer able to make those decisions for yourself.  Again, I highly recommend naming an agent as well as an alternate agent to act in the event that your primary agent is unwilling or unable to act.  Again, I cannot stress the importance of this simple document.  If you do not have a Health Care Proxy and you are unable to make medical decisions for yourself, someone in your family will need to go to court to apply for something called a guardianship.  The guardianship will allow them to make medical decisions for you but the process is expensive and time consuming and can be easily avoided by putting a Health Care Proxy in place ahead of time.

To reiterate, everyone over the age of eighteen should have a Durable Power of Attorney as well as a Health Care Proxy.  These “living documents” can save your family a great deal of time, money and anxiety in the event you become unable to make legal, financial, and medical decisions on your own.

Now that we have discussed some basic “living documents”, let’s discuss some very basic estate planning documents that you should consider putting in place in the event of your death.

A Will is legal document where you indicate who is to inherit both your tangible personal property (personal effects) as well as your monetary assets.  A will is also the document wherein you name a personal representative (formerly known as executor) to distribute the assets to your beneficiaries.  Finally, a Will is where parents of minor children name a guardian for their child. If you do not have a Will, your assets may not pass to the beneficiary you had in mind, someone you don’t want to serve as personal representative (executor) may be appointed as such, and, if you have minor children, the person you intended to serve as guardian may not be appointed to serve as guardian.

A Revocable Trust is also a very simple estate planning document used by many individuals.  A Revocable Trust is an agreement between the Grantor (the person putting the money in the trust) and a Trustee (the person in control of the money) to hold the assets in the trust for the benefit of the beneficiaries named in the trust.  Some of the most common reasons to use a Revocable Trust are to avoid probate (which occurs if you pass with assets in your name with no joint owner or beneficiary named), to provide for minor beneficiaries and to protect inheritances from creditors and divorce.

As I said at the beginning of this blog there are dozens of estate planning documents in an estate planning attorney’s “toolbox”.  This blog was intended to cover the four most basic documents.  See future blogs for explanations of other estate planning documents that may be available and appropriate for you and your family.