Estate Planning Basics

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Estate planning is an important part of one’s overall financial plan. Even if you are paying off debt or just starting to save and don’t have much of an estate yet, there are key documents that every adult should have in place. Here are insights from two estate planning attorneys I’ve consulted with:

Expert Advice

Alicia Gamez is an estate planning and tax law specialist who has her own practice in San Francisco, CA. She is also on the 2013 board of directors of the San Francisco Bar Association and drafted my personal estate plan. According to her, the basic documents everyone needs are a Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Will. The Healthcare Power of Attorney states how you would like to be cared for if you become incapacitated. It specifies things like whether or not you would like your life prolonged and under what circumstances. In the state of California a Will is sufficient if the individual has an estate worth less than $150,000. It’s important to remember that these rules vary from state to state. So be sure to check the specifics unique to your jurisdiction.

She adds that if you have children you absolutely need provisions for temporary guardianship in place.  If you don’t have this document in place and something happens to you, a court will choose someone to care for your children–it might not be the person you would have chosen.

Kyle Krasa is another estate planning specialist who has a law practice in Pacific Grove, CA. He confirmed Alicia’s recommendations and added additional documents to consider. For instance, you might also want to have a HIPAA Waiver and General Durable Springing Power of Attorney in place. He also added that, “If the client has children, guardianship provisions should be addressed in both the Power of Attorney (for periods of disability) and in the Will (upon death). Alternatively, instead of drafting a Will, the client can execute a separate document that simply nominates guardians for minor children.” For additional estate planning concepts, check out Kyle’s legal lesson videos.

Trusted Friends & Family

It’s imperative to choose a trusted family member or friend who is named to carry out your instructions in these documents. Select someone carefully. He or she should be a responsible  person who will follow through and who has the fortitude and love to take care of the issues you’ve trusted them with. This is particularly true when choosing someone to care for your minor children. Remember, you can name separate people to handle the finances and day to day rearing of the children. Single people, particularly those who live away from family, have to create a network for themselves and choose a reliable friend in town to be a durable power of attorney in case they become incapacitated and need assistance.

Finally, make sure your wishes are communicated to those you have appointed to be in charge.  Let them know where you keep your signed documents and give them a copy. Keep documents in a sealed envelope somewhere reasonably safe. One suggestion is to put documents in the freezer because it is a relatively fire safe spot (though best practice is a fire safe box).


Seeking the advice of an attorney to put an estate plan in place can be expensive and out of reach for many of us. If you can afford it or have a complicated situation, having an expert draft your documents can add tremendous value. Someone who specializes in this area of law can create documents with detail and also spot potential issues. You won’t get this level of detailed knowledge if you don’t work with an attorney. Fortunately, there are free resources that can be effective for straightforward cases.

Your local bar association is a great resource. Not only can you find attorneys in your area specializing in estate planning law, but every state provides a free draft of a Will that you can use as a template to create your own document. Simply search online for “Statutory Will” and your state.  Some pro bono resources are also available if you qualify.

Nolo Press is another helpful resource. They have detailed instructions for all their forms that will help you execute your documents with as much detail and accuracy as possible. Keep in mind drafting these documents is not straightforward, and the subtleties of legal language can be more complicated that one might think. I’d like to emphasize that if you have the means, working with an attorney is the way to go.

If you have a more involved situation, meeting with an estate planning attorney can help you be effective with your tax planning, gifting and the implementation of other protections and strategies. Estate planning is a critical part of completing a financial plan and ensuring your wishes are carried out and assets distributed according to your personal specifications.

This post was written by SaveUp’s personal finance contributing writer, Catherine Hawley, CFP®.

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