Estate Planning Checklist [11 Key Steps to Take]

February 5, 2018
Written by: Steven Gibbs | Last Updated on: April 4, 2023
Fact Checked by Jason Herring and Barry Brooksby (licensed insurance experts)

Insurance and Estates, a strategic life insurance provider composed of life insurance professionals, is committed to integrity in our editorial standards and transparency in how we receive compensation from our insurance partners.

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Here is a simple way to start your own estate planning checklist. Make an list of your assets and liabilities. Everything you own and everything you owe. This is your estate.

Next, make a list of all the assets in your estate and where you want those assets to go upon your death. Your plan for where your estate’s assets will go upon your death (or even in life) is your estate plan.

The following article will help you create your own estate planning checklist, which will in turn help you in taking the next steps to creating your estate plan.

Formulating your Estate Plan

Although estate planning has become more popular over the years, there are still some basic steps that some people leave out which can lead to a nightmare for those left behind. When an estate hasn’t been planned sufficiently, it is often those left behind-family and friends-that have to deal with the mess. And what’s worse, money you earmarked to go to those you love now goes to lawyers, accountants and the state.

For this reason, we have compiled a simple estate planning checklist of things that you need to consider when planning your estate. Of course, it will always be best to contact a professional since every situation is unique but this is a basic checklist that you can help you get on the right track.

Estate Planning Checklist

  1. A Last Will and Testament
  2. Advance Health Care Directive
  3. Durable Power of Attorney
  4. Revocable Living Trust
  5. Pour Over Will
  6. Protection for Children
  7. Business Succession
  8. Estate Taxes
  9. Life Insurance
  10. Funeral Costs
  11. Professional Guidance
  12. Finishing Touches

Make a Will

A last will and testament (“a will”) is a document that tells the executor of your estate how you wish him or her to distribute your assets. A will does not avoid court interaction. Instead, a will is a road map for the probate court.

You can create your own will as long as you follow the basic formalities of creating a will, which vary from state to state. The most typical are:

  • The testator of the will must be 18 or older,
  • Possess the mental capacity to know what he or she is creating, what his possessions are, and his relationship to individuals named in the will.
  • Be signed by two witnesses that are not named in the will or not involved in the preparation of the will, i.e. no conflict of interest.
  • The two witness rule does not apply if the will is a holographic will.
    • A holographic will must be completely written, signed and dated in the testator’s handwriting.

A note of caution: a will only takes affect upon the death of the testator. As a result, if the testator becomes incapacitated, another document, such as a living trust and living will (see below) should also be part of any good estate planning checklist.

Advance Health Care Directives (also known as Living Wills)

As mentioned previously, wills do not take affect when you are incapacitated, which is why a health care directive can be helpful. Essentially, this means that all health decisions are made by you ahead of time should you be incapacitated and unable to make important health care decisions. As well as this ‘living will’, you can also appoint an agent for your financial affairs via a durable power of attorney (DPOA).

Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA)

Aside from your health, you may also need someone to make decisions regarding your finances if you find yourself incapacitated down the line. If you cannot handle your own affairs, this person that is trusted and chosen by you will become your agent and make important financial decisions for you.

When people think about estate planning, they often overlook incapacity planning.  A durable power of attorney ensures that someone you trust remains in control of your property and finances if you are unable to do so yourself.

If you are to appoint a DPOA, it is best to ensure that your finances are kept up-to-date so that the process will be easier for them. For example, IRA and 401k accounts should be regularly assessed. Every so often, review the details and ensure that the beneficiaries are listed as you wish. Furthermore, keep all annuities and life insurance contracts informed as to your decisions and chosen beneficiaries.

Finally, you can ease the pressure on your financial DPOA by making sure that your assets are properly titled in the name of your living trust.

Revocable Living Trust

Nowadays, one of the biggest concerns when estate planning is that the desired beneficiary not receive the assets as planned without having to go through an expensive probate. In order to avoid a costly and time consuming probate, a revocable living trust, also known as an inter vivos trust, is an excellent solution.

By placing your assets in a revocable living trust, you will be able to manage your financial affairs throughout your life and have a management plan in place should you become incapacitated. Not only will a revocable living trust help to avoid probate, it will keep all personal information private and provide your successor trustee with the authority to manage your finances if you become incapacitated.

Once you have created a living trust you must properly fund your trust. Correctly titling your assets in the name of your trust will ensure that your trustee will be able to administer your trust without any problems. However, many people have failed to properly place a valuable asset into the name of the trust, which can result in costly court proceedings to correct this oversight.

Pour Over Will

If you choose to go the route of a living trust, a pour over will is a must. A pour over will simply grabs any assets not tiled in the name of the trust and “pours” those assets into the trust. Then the assets placed in the trust will be distributed by the trustee according to the terms of the trust.

A word of caution. One problem many people run into with a poor estate plan is that their assets are not placed into their trust. As a result, when the Trustor dies, these untitled or poorly titled assets become part of the decedent’s estate. This can lead to problems, such as the assets having to be probated. Therefore, make sure all your assets are properly titled.

Protect Children

If you have minor children under the age of 18, providing the name of a guardian in your will is a must. If you fail to provide who you want to become the legal guardian of your children, the court will make that decision for you. You will also want to consider naming a separate trustee to manage your children’s assets that you leave behind.

Sadly, many people leave assets to their children each year without realizing how dangerous this can be. If you plan to leave any money or property to your children, you should always name an adult as an executor or trustee who can manage the assets for them. For those with young children, consider naming someone different than the guardian in your will so that there are checks and balances in place between the trustee and the guardian. You can also give your child money in certain increments or at specific ages to make sure the money is not given to your children in one lump sum.

Business Succession

If you own a business as a sole proprietor or as a partnership, then business continuity succession planning is a must. As a sole proprietor, you will need to consider:

  • Who will take over your business due to incapacity, retirement, or death?
  • Do you have a plan in place to sell the business if no competent suitor can take over?
  • Will your successor have access to enough liquid assets to pay off existing debt obligations?

If you have a business with others you will need to consider the following:

  • Do you have a business succession plan in place if your become disabled or incapacitated?
  • Do you have a business succession plan in place if you or one of your partners dies?
  • Do you have a family business succession plan if you’re in business with family members?

Estate Taxes

When planning your estate, it is really important that you understand federal estate taxes to avoid any unnecessary taxes against your estate. The 2018 estate tax exemption will be $11.2 million or $22.4 million for a married couple. If your estate is valued above the exemption limit advanced estate planning may be necessary, including the use of irrevocable trusts, such as irrevocable life insurance trusts, charitable remainder trusts and charitable lead trusts.

Life Insurance

Life insurance for estate planning should name a beneficiary and not list your estate as the beneficiary. Life insurance proceeds are typically tax free. However, if your estate planning life insurance enriches your estate above the current federal estate tax exemption limit of $11.2 million, your life insurance may be taxed as part of your overall estate. A great way to title your life insurance beneficiary designation is to name your spouse or children as the primary beneficiary and then name the trustee of your trust as the contingent beneficiary.

Funeral Costs

While some choose to go for a funeral prepayment plan, these can be unreliable. Instead, those with limited liquid funds should consider setting up a ‘payable-on-death’ (POD) account at your local bank. As long as you deposit funds into the account every now and then, these funds can go directly towards a family member who will take care of funeral costs. Since the cost of funerals can be significant for families with little money, this is a good way to ease the burden after you pass away.

Talk to Professionals

As we said at the very beginning, these are some simple steps that you can take to ensure that you and your loved ones are in the best position should something happen to go wrong with your estate plan. After all, the best laid plans of mice and men often clash with Murphy’s Law (what can go wrong, will go wrong). Therefore, seeking out a professional estate planner goes a long way to ensuring that your goals are met.

By having a professional service by your side, you can be sure that there will be no nasty surprises for your loved ones after you pass away. Although this estate planning checklist is an important step, it is obviously not specific to you and your situation. In order to get a tailored plan you need to consult with a professional.

Finishing Touches

When you have all of your documents in order and the professional is happy that you are doing everything you can, you then need to have an organized filing system so that everything will be easy should the worst happen. When you die, people will need access to your will, real estate deeds, insurance policies, trusts, certificates for bonds, annuities, and stocks, bank accounts, mutual funds, IRA accounts401k accounts, mortgages, loans, and other important assets such as life insurance policies. In today’s age of digital assets, it is also critical to remember estate planning for digital accounts, and identifying passwords, etc.


There you have it, an in-depth estate planning checklist. Remember, an estate plan only works if your successor trustee or executor is aware of it. Make sure whoever will administer your estate when you die or become incapacitated has access to your documents. That way, if the unexpected occurs you will be prepared. Your beneficiaries will thank you for your advanced planning.


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