Part of planning for the future is deciding about what will happen to your estate after your death. Another issue is deciding what should happen should you become incapacitated and unable to act for yourself. These issues fall into the broad category called estate planning.

Estate planning isn't just for the wealthy. Depending on your age, family situation, and assets, your need for estate planning may be simple or complex.

What is your estate? It consists of all the property—real and personal—that you own at the time of your death. The property may include real estate, bank accounts, stock and other securities, life insurance policies, personal property such as automobiles, jewelry, artwork, and other collections.

Estate planning allows you to:

  • Identify who should receive your property after your death.

  • Ensure that your property will be transferred to the identified persons quickly and with as few legal steps as possible.

  • Define the kinds of medical care you wish to receive should you be unable to decide for yourself.

  • Describe the funeral arrangements you desire and how related expenses should be paid.

The result of estate planning should be some combination of these documents:

  • Will
  • Trust
  • Health care directives
  • Financial power of attorney
  • Description of final arrangements

At a minimum you should have a will and healthcare directives. Descriptions and resources for these and other estate planning options are provided in the following sections.

Estate planning is not a task that you do once then forget it. You should review your plan periodically—every 3 to 5 years is a good time frame—to make sure that it reflects your current situation. Here are several reasons to update your plan:

  • You marry, divorce, or remarry.
  • You have a child or a grandchild.
  • You move to another state.
  • The value of your assets change significantly.
  • The executor of your will or the administrator of your trust dies or becomes incapacitated, or your relationship with that person changes significantly.
  • One of your heirs dies or has a permanent change in health.
  • You decide to change your beneficiaries.
  • The laws affecting your estate changes.

Information Needed for Planning

In order to plan your estate, you need to have the following information. Use the Estate Planning Checklist to help you.

  • Any real estate you own (such as your home) and its approximate value.
  • Savings – bank account, money market accounts, CDs – amounts and the financial institutions where they are deposited.
  • Investments – stocks, bonds, mutual funds – identify the investments, amounts, and where the accounts are located.
  • Retirement accounts – 401(k), IRA, pension, Keogh accounts, government benefits, profit sharing plans – identify the accounts, amounts, and where the accounts are located.
  • Life insurance policies and annuities – account balances, issuer, owner, beneficiaries, and any amounts borrowed against the policies.
  • Motor vehicles – cars, boats, motorcycles, planes, etc.
  • List the co-owner for any jointly owned property.
  • List the amounts and sources of your income, including interest, dividends, and other household income (such as your spouse's salary).
  • List the amounts and sources of all your debts, including mortgages, credit cards, loans, leases, and business debts.
  • List the value of any jewelry, collections, heirlooms, furniture, and any other personal property.
  • List the names, addresses, and birth dates of your spouse, children, and any other relatives whom you might include in your will. If they have any disabilities or special needs list them too.
  • If you have young children, list the names, addresses, and phone numbers of possible guardians.
  • List the names, addresses, and phone numbers of executors or trustees.
  • Gather together any documents that might affect your estate plan – prenuptial agreements, marriage certificates, divorce decrees, recent tax returns, existing wills and trusts, property deeds.

General Resources on Estate Planning

These resources give an overview of the many aspects of estate planning; they also address specific topics such as wills, living trusts, and powers of attorney. They can help you begin to assess your needs and goals.

  • Wills, Trusts and Probate from Nolo.com, the self-help legal site, offers an excellent place to start. The site's many articles are arranged in logical topics and provide sound, easy-to-understand information.

  • Estate Planning FAQ's from the American Bar Association provides a quick estate planning overview in a Q&A format.

Wills

A will is a legal document in which you specify what should be done with your property—not just your home but any possessions—after you die. It also names the executor, i.e. the person to handle the property. If you die without making a will—called "intestate"—then state law will determine what happens to your property. For this reason, experts recommend that you have a will even if you have almost nothing. These resources will explain more about what a will is and how to make one.

Even though requirements may differ from state to state, these are fairly standard. To make a will you must be an adult –- age 18 in most states. You must also be of "sound mind." This basically means that you must know what a will is and that you are making one, know what you own, know the identities of your family an close friends, and be able to decide how to distribute your property.

A will must be typewritten or printed from a computer. Handwritten wills are only valid in a few states and even then should be a last resort.

What Makes a Will Legal?

To make a will legal it must fulfill these requirements:

  • It must state that it is your will.
  • You must date and sign the will in the presence of witnesses.
  • The will must be signed by at least 2 witnesses, 3 in Vermont. In most states, the witnesses must not inherit anything under the will.

A will doesn't have to be notarized. In most states, you and your witnesses should sign an affidavit before a notary public. This makes the will "self-proving," so that the witnesses won't have to go to court to prove the validity of the will.

A will doesn't have to be filed or recorded with any government agency. It may be filed in a few states should the maker so wish.

What Should Be in a Will?

A will usually has the following information:

  • Your name and place of residence.
  • Names of beneficiaries—spouse, children, charities, friends, etc.
  • Alternate beneficiaries in case a beneficiary dies before you do.
  • Name of the personal representative or executor to manage the estate.
  • A statement revoking any prior wills.

Any of the following information can also be included in a will, if you desire.

  • Specific gifts.
  • Establishment of a trust.
  • Name of the guardian(s) of minor children.
  • Alternate guardian(s).
  • Cancellation of debts owed to you.

What Shouldn't Be in a Will?

Experts advise that your will is not the appropriate place to handle the following:

  • A description of your assets.
  • Property that you hold with someone else in joint tenancy. At your death, your share of the property automatically belongs to the surviving co-owner.
  • Property that has been transferred to a living trust.
  • Proceeds of a life insurance policy that has a beneficiary.
  • Money in a pension plan, IRA, 401(k) plan, or other retirement plan. The beneficiaries for these are named on forms provided by the plan administrator.
  • Stocks or bonds held in transfer-on-death forms.
  • Money in a payable-on-death bank account.
  • Funeral instructions.
  • Reducing estate taxes.
  • Avoiding probate.
  • Putting conditions on gifts.
  • Leaving money for an illegal purpose.
  • Arranging to care for a beneficiary with special needs.
  • Leaving money to pets.

For the appropriateness of specific bequests and instructions your wish in your will, consult your legal advisor.

Does a Lawyer Have to Draw Up a Will?

No. A lawyer doesn't have to draw up a will for it to be legal. With good self-help materials—books and software are available—most people can draw up their own will.

However, there are benefits to having a lawyer prepare your will (and other estate planning documents). A lawyer is knowledgeable about the laws of the state and is trained in putting your wishes in the clearest and most appropriate form. A lawyer can also help you decide which estate planning documents are appropriate for your situation.

Updating Your Will

Your will can be updated in two ways. The first is to add a "codicil." A codicil can add, modify, delete, alter or revoke existing provisions in a will. A codicil must be signed before witnesses just like a will.

The second way it to write a new will. With the use of computers today, it is probably just as easy to write a new will than to make a codicil. Making a new will can also reduce confusion that can be caused by codicils. If you make a new will, it should include a clause that cancels all previous wills.

Choosing a Personal Representative

Your will must name a personal representative (or an executor in many states). The personal representative is responsible for settling your financial affairs after your death. You can choose anyone who is age 18 or older (except convicted felons) to be your executor. Most people choose their spouse, an adult child, or a close friend. Your personal representative should be willing to do the job. You should also name an alternate personal representative to cover the possibility that the person name as the personal representative can't or doesn't want to be the personal representative. If you don't name an alternate personal representative, the court will have to appoint one.

Choosing a Personal Guardian

If you have minor children (under age 18), then you should appoint a guardian for each child in your will. This will ensure that, in the unlikely event that you and your spouse die, your children are cared for as you would wish. You can name a separate guardian for each child or one guardian for all the children. If you decide to name a separate guardian for each child, you should provide a statement explaining why this is best for the children.

Choosing a Financial Guardian

Because minor children cannot own property outright without adult supervision unless, depending on the state, it is under $2,500 - $5,000, experts recommend that the personal guardian should usually manage the money and property left for the children unless there are very good reasons for choosing someone else. For example, the person you choose as a guardian may not want to manage the financial inheritance in addition to caring for the children or he or she may not be financially savvy. In this case, you want to choose someone who is a good financial manager and is willing to do the job. If you do decide to have another person manage the finances, then make sure that the proposed guardians agree to this arrangement before you name them. You can leave property to a minor and name the property guardian in these basic ways:

  • Under the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA). All states, except South Carolina and Vermont, have adopted this law. Under UMTA the property guardian is called a custodian. The child receives the property when they reach age 18 to 25 depending on the state. If you have multiple children, you will need to make separate gifts to each child.

  • Child's Trust or Pot Trust. Under a trust, the property guardian is called a trustee. Such trusts are legal in all states. You can either create a separate child's trust for each child or use a pot trust to leave property for multiple children. Under a pot trust, property doesn't' have to be spent equally on each child. With a child's trust, you specify the age the beneficiary must reach before they receive the property. With a pop trust, usually the property is turned over to the beneficiaries when the youngest turns 18 or 21.

  • Property Guardian. If you don't use one of the above methods, or there is property that isn't covered by one of the above methods, you name a property guardian. With this method, the property must be turned over to the beneficiary when they turn 18.

The amount of paperwork required for naming a property guardian and the requirement for court supervision vary among the methods. Consult a legal professional to decide what method is right for your situation.

Resources for Wills

These resources provide more information about these topics related to making a will.

  • 10 Things You Should Know About Writing a Will from AARP offers an introduction to preparing a will.

  • Wills from Nolo.com has various articles such as making a no-frills will, choosing a guardian for your children, choosing an executor, when do I need to change my will.

Living Trusts

A revocable living trust is a trust that you set up while you are still living and to which you immediately transfer ownership of assets that you plan to pass on to your heirs. You continue to control your assets within the trust and can revoke it or change it at any time.

The chief advantage of living trusts, advise experts, is that after your death the ownership of the trust passes directly to the beneficiaries; it does not have to go through probate. Experts caution, however, that living trusts are not appropriate for everyone. Many states have simplified probate, so a living trust may not save money or time.

Living trusts can range from the simple to the complex. Be wary of the "one-size-fits-all" trusts marketed over the phone, by mail, at the door, or through seminars. Even though you can create your own trust using a self-help book or software, experts recommend that you use an attorney.

A living trust can also provide a way to handle your affairs if you become incapacitated. In this case, your co-trustees or successor trustee can take over management of the trust.

Even if you have a living trust, legal experts point out that you still need a will to take care of assets that aren't in the trust.

Their popularity has given rise to living trust scams and schemes that have defrauded consumers of millions of dollars. Here are some tips to help the wise consumer:

  • Each individual situation is different so consult a qualified professional before buying a "one-size-fits-all" or "cookie-cutter" living trust "kit."
  • Take all the time you need to understand everything before you buy anything. Get your questions answered to your satisfaction. If you feel pressured, consider choosing another advisor who is more willing to work with you.
  • Before buying a kit from a salesperson, call your attorney. Compare prices for preparing a trust to make sure the price is fair.
  • Probate costs and attorney fees vary widely from state to state, so be wary if a trust salesperson quotes specific results or cost savings.
  • Don't give any personal and financial information to the salesperson to be passed on to a lawyer. Meet with the lawyer personally.

For more details about living trusts, check out these resources.

  • Living Trusts, a pamphlet developed by the Colorado Bar Association, gives a succinct introduction to revocable living trusts in a Q&A format. The article explains how a living trust is created and "what it may or may not accomplish for you and under what circumstances it may be appropriate."

  • Living Trust FAQs from Kiplinger.com covers the basics of Living Trusts, their suitability for estate planning, and potential dangers.

  • Living Trust Offers: How to Make Sure They are Trustworthy from the Federal Trade Commission provides tips for identifying misleading living trust offers.

  • Living Trusts: Beware of "One-Size-Fits-All" Estate Plans, a Consumer Alert from the Michigan State Attorney General's Department, cautions against living trust kits being marketed across the country, particularly to older Americans and often at exorbitant costs, such as $1995 per trust.

Healthcare Directives (Living Will) and Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

Making a will and/or creating a living trust are not sufficient because their main purpose is to determine what happens to your estate once you've died. To cover the eventuality that you may not be able to make your own health care decisions, you need a few more simple documents.

Experts recommend that you prepare two documents—a healthcare directive and a durable power of attorney for health care. In some states, these documents are combined in a single form that may be found on the state website by searching for "health care proxy," "advance directive," "living will" or "health care directive."

Healthcare Directives

The healthcare directive defines the type of care you want or don't want, if you are unable to speak or decide for yourself. Healthcare directives may be called living wills, advance directive, medical directive, directive to physicians, declaration regarding health care, designation of health care surrogate, or patient advocate directive depending on the state you live in.

Your healthcare directive can only become effective when the following occurs:

  • You are diagnosed to be close to death from a terminal condition or permanently comatose.
  • You can't communicate your own wishes for your medical care orally, in writing or through gestures.
  • Your written directives for your medical care are provided to the attending medical personnel.

Your healthcare directive can describe whether you want specific procedures or care such as:

  • Transfusions of blood and blood products
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
  • Diagnostic tests
  • Dialysis
  • Drugs
  • Respirator
  • Surgery
  • Pain medication
  • Food and water (nutrition and hydration)

It's important that you include your wishes on pain medication because most states exclude pain-relieving procedures from the definitions of life-prolonging treatments that may be withheld.

It's also important you include your wishes on whether you want food and water withheld because some states exclude nutrition and hydration from the definitions of life-prolonging treatments that may be withheld.

Your healthcare directive is a good place to indicate if you wish to donate your organs, tissue, body parts or whole body. You can specify the organs, tissues, or body parts you wish to donate and also the purposes for which they can be used. It is smart to make the arrangements in advance, particularly for the whole body, and make sure that your healthcare agent and family members know about the arrangements.

You should have a healthcare directive even if you don't name a healthcare agent. Medical personnel are required to follow your written wishes for healthcare or to find someone who will care for you as you directed, even if you don't have an agent.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

The durable power of attorney appoints someone to be your health care agent. Your healthcare agent will make medical decisions for you if you can't make or communicate them yourself. The healthcare agent may be called an attorney-in-fact, healthcare proxy, patient advocate, or healthcare surrogate.

Most durable powers of attorney for health care give your healthcare agent the authority to make all healthcare decisions for you. You can place limitations on the agent's authority but experts recommend that you don't. Remember that a healthcare agent only steps in when you are no longer able to make the decisions.

You can choose your spouse, partner, relative, or close friend. You should be comfortable discussing your wishes with them. The person you choose must respect your documented wishes even if they don't agree with them. They must also be willing to assert your documented wishes with the medical establishment and family members. Don't name an agent without discussing your wishes with them and making sure that they are willing to be your healthcare agent.

In many states, the law prevents you from naming your doctor, or an employee or a hospital or nursing home, as your healthcare agent. While your agent doesn't have to live nearby, you should consider where they live. In many instances, your agent may need to spend weeks or months making sure your wishes are carried out.

Do Not Resuscitate Orders

A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order can be a supplement to your healthcare directives. A DNR indicates that you don't wish to receive CPR if your heart stops or you stop breathing. These are usually used by persons who are critically ill and don't want life-prolonging treatment. This document can be placed in your medical record if you are in a hospital or nursing home. You may also request that your doctor place it in your records maintained by the doctor.

Resources

These resources provide more information about healthcare directives, durable powers of attorney, and do not resuscitate orders.

Estate Taxes

Many people worry that their estate will be subject to estate taxes. The fact is only about 2% of all estates are subject to federal estate tax. Some states also have an estate tax. A few states have an inheritance tax. This section provides an overview of estate and inheritance taxes.

Federal Estate Taxes

The federal tax code contains several exemptions and deductions that allow large amounts of property to be transferred free of estate taxes.

  • The personal estate tax exemption allows a specific dollar amount of property to be passed on tax free. It doesn't matter who inherits it. This exemption is $10 million for 2018.
  • The marital deduction exempts all property left to a surviving spouse from estate tax. The exception is if the spouse is not a U.S. citizen.
  • The charitable deduction exempts all property left to a tax-exempt charity from estate tax.

Money Matters tip: If your estate could be $1 million or more, you should consider estate tax planning. You should also watch for changes to estate tax laws that may affect you.

State Estate Taxes

Oklahoma no longer charges estate taxes.

Many other states also charge estate taxes. The size of the estate subject to the tax varies from state to state. Check with the state tax or revenue agency for details. To locate the agency's web site, start at State and Local Government on the Net.

State Inheritance Taxes

A few states have an inheritance tax which is imposed on the beneficiaries of the estate (the people who receive the property) not the estate itself. Currently Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania charge inheritance taxes. For more information, check with the state tax or revenue agency where your beneficiaries reside.

Income in Respect of Decedent

When planning, you don't want to overlook one category of assets. This category includes assets such as IRAs, untaxed contributions and earnings in retirement accounts, unpaid commissions, bonuses, stock options, and any other income that would have been taxable to the deceased.

This is called "income in respect of the decedent" and is also referred to as IRD. The beneficiary of an IRD asset must pay income tax when they receive the IRD income. Depending on the amount of the asset and the tax bracket of the recipient, the tax bite could be substantial. An estate planning professional should be able to help you identify those assets that could become IRD and help you plan appropriately.

Resources

These resources have more information on estate taxes.

Financial Powers of Attorney

A power of attorney is an authorization to act on someone else's behalf in a legal or business matter. A financial power of attorney or durable power of attorney for finances is more specific. It is a way for someone to legally manage your finances if you become unable to do so yourself.

A financial power of attorney can be broad or limited. For example, you could grant a financial power of attorney to sell a car or house, or to buy and sell securities, or to handle all of your finances.

A financial power of attorney can go into effect as soon as you sign it, or you can specify that it doesn't go into effect until a specifically defined event occurs such as a doctor certifies that you are incapacitated (called a "springing" durable power of attorney).

If you become incapacitated and don't have a durable financial power of attorney, then your family will probably have to ask a court for authority to handle your affairs.

Your durable financial power of attorney ends when you die.

Legal experts typically assert that most people should have a durable financial power of attorney. To ensure that you are appropriately covered, you should consult a legal professional.

You may need to make mare than one durable financial power of attorney because some financial institutions (including brokerage companies) have their own durable power of attorney form.

Durable Financial Power of Attorney from FindLaw.com and Financial Powers of Attorney from Nolo.com provide more information about how a financial power of attorney works.

Estate Planning Checklist

This comprehensive checklist will help you collect the necessary information to plan your estate. You can also download it (pdf).

Personal and Family Information

List the names exactly as you wish them to appear in your estate planning documents.

  • Your Name:
  • Your Date of Birth:
  • Your Spouse's Name:
  • Your Spouse's Date of Birth:
  • Home Address:
  • Telephone Number:
  • Are you a United States citizen?
  • If not, what country are you a citizen of?
  • Is your spouse a United States citizen?
  • If not, what country is your spouse a citizen of?
  • For each child, list the following:
    • Name:
    • Date of Birth:
    • Is the child adopted? If so, when and where were they adopted?
    • Is the child deceased? If so, when did they die?
    • Is the child yours from a previous marriage or your spouse's from a previous marriage?
    • Name of Spouse:
    • Name of Child and Date of Birth:
  • If you or your spouse have been married before, list the following:
    • Name:
    • Address (if living):
  • If you or your spouse have been divorced, provide a copy of the divorce decree.
  • Does a member of your family have a disability or require special care? If so, who and what do they need?

Residences

Personal residence:

  • Address:
  • Is it single family, condo, or co-op:
  • How do you hold title?
    • Joint tenancy with right of survivorship
    • Tenancy by the entirety
    • Tenancy in common
    • Your name only
    • Spouse's name only
    • Other
  • Fair market value:
  • Mortgage balance, if any:
  • Mortgage life insurance:

List the same for any other personal residences or vacation homes.

Personal and Household Effects

For each of the following categories provide an estimate of the value and who owns it. Provide any additional details as needed.

  • Automobiles:
  • General personal and household effects:
    • Furniture:
    • Furnishings:
    • Books:
    • Pictures (of no special value):
    • Music (CDs, records, tapes):
    • DVDs:
  • Valuable jewelry and if insured:
  • Valuable works of art and if insured:
  • Valuable antiques and if insured:
  • Other valuable collections such as stamps, coins, etc.:
  • Anything else:

Cash, Cash Deposits, and Cash Equivalents

For each checking account, money market account, savings account, certificates of deposit, and T-bills (short-term U.S. obligations) provide the following information:

  • Name of bank or institution:
  • Address of bank or institution:
  • Who owns it? You, your spouse, or jointly? If jointly, who with (if not your spouse)?

Pension & Profit-Sharing Plans, IRAs, ESOPs or Other Tax-Qualified Employee-Benefit Plans

Provide the following information for each plan you or your spouse participate in.

You:

  • Vested:
  • Current Value:
  • Primary and contingent beneficiaries:

Your Spouse:

  • Vested:
  • Current Value:
  • Primary and contingent beneficiaries:

Life Insurance on Your Life

Ordinary life insurance:

  • Company name:
  • Company address:
  • Policy number:
  • Face amount of policies:
  • If you don't own it, who does?
  • Primary and contingent beneficiaries:
  • Cash value:
  • Loans, if any, against it:
  • Amount of accidental death benefits, if any:

Term or group term life insurance

  • Company name:
  • Company address:
  • Policy number:
  • Face amount of policies:
  • If you don't own it, who does?
  • Primary and contingent beneficiaries:
  • Amount of accidental death benefits, if any:

Provide the same information for any other life insurance policies or insurance that has life insurance features.

Life Insurance on Your Spouse's Life

Ordinary life insurance:

  • Company name:
  • Company address:
  • Policy number:
  • Face amount of policies:
  • If your spouse doesn't own it, who does?
  • Primary and contingent beneficiaries:
  • Cash value:
  • Loans, if any, against it:
  • Amount of accidental death benefits, if any:

Term or group term life insurance

  • Company name:
  • Company address:
  • Policy number:
  • Face amount of policies:
  • If your spouse doesn't own it, who does?
  • Primary and contingent beneficiaries:
  • Amount of accidental death benefits, if any:

Provide the same information for any other life insurance policies or insurance that has life insurance features.

Investment Assets

For publicly traded stocks and corporate bonds, municipal bonds, long-term U.S. Treasury Notes and Bonds, limited partnership interests provide the following information. Include the approximate value.

  • You own:
  • Your spouse owns:
  • Owned jointly with your spouse:
  • Owned jointly with someone else:

For any other investments not covered in the above list, describe the investment and its value.

Other Data

You will also need to collect any other data that pertains to your assets, income, and possible future income. You may have other data that hasn't been covered in this checklist.

Tips for Choosing a Lawyer

When choosing a lawyer, you want to find the right one for your situation. Here are some tips to help.

  • Determine if you need a general practice lawyer or an estate planning specialist. For basic needs such as a simple will or trust, a reputable general practice lawyer typically can do a good job usually at a lower cost than a specialist. If you have more complex needs, then a lawyer specializing in estate planning may be best.

  • Ask several people you trust which lawyers they've used and if they did a good job. Personal recommendations are often the most satisfactory means of identifying candidates that will be a good match for your needs.

  • Other sources may be the local or state bar association. The State Bar of Virginia provides a Lawyer Search for your benefit. Another source is the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory available at your local library or online at martindale.com.

  • Lawyers usually specialize in one or more areas of the law so you want one that is experienced in your area of need.

  • Talk with more than one lawyer before choosing. You want a lawyer that you are comfortable with since you will be providing them with very personal information. For example, if you aren't comfortable asking questions or the answers you get aren't to your liking, keep looking.

  • Ask up front what the lawyer's fees are for the services you desire and if there might be any additional charges. Once you've chosen a lawyer, you should agree on the fee arrangement up front and in writing.

The FTC fact sheet Hiring a Lawyer provides more details about these tips.

You may belong to a group legal plan through your place of employment or through your membership in an organization. These plans provide legal services at a reduced cost or free.

Your Final Arrangements

One of the best steps you can take in your estate planning is to provide written instructions related to your final ceremonies and the disposition of your body. This will relieve your survivors of the stress of making these decisions at a difficult time. If you don't leave written instructions, then state law will usually determine who will have the right to decide.

You should discuss your plans with those who will be responsible for carrying out your wishes and give them a copy of your plans and documents for "pre-paid" services or contracts you may have in place. Many experts recommend that your final arrangements not be included in your will since it may not be located and read until several weeks after you die.

After a home and car, funerals are one of the most expensive purchases you can make. An average funeral can cost from $4,000 to $6,000 with many funerals costing well over $10,000. This guide from the FTC, Shopping for Funeral Services, can help you make your plans.

The following is a list of what can be provided in your final arrangements document. You may think of other items.

  • Indicate if you want your remains buried, cremated, or donated to science.
  • Name of the mortuary or other institution that will handle the burial, cremation, or donation.
  • Indicate if you want your body to be embalmed.
  • Indicate the type of casket or container in which your remains will be buried or cremated.
  • Indicate if you want your remains at any after-death ceremony.
  • Provide the details of any ceremonies you want.
  • Name your pallbearers if you wish to have any.
  • Indicate how your remains are to be transported to the cemetery and gravesite.
  • Indicate where your remains will be buried, stored, or scattered.
  • Provide the details about any marker you want to indicate where your remains are buried or interred.
  • Information you want included in your obituary.
  • Indicate how it should be paid for.

As you plan your final arrangements, you should get information about funeral expenses and services from several funeral homes. The Federal Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to provide free copies of price lists when you visit or provide prices over the telephone. Note that cemeteries don't have to give prices over the phone. The FTC Guide: Funeral Costs and Pricing Checklist has a checklist to help you compare costs of various services.

There are other things to consider with a cemetery site. The price of a plot or crypt can be costly. Other costs include opening the grave and filling it in, perpetual care, and usually a grave liner. Burial in a crypt also has costs for opening and closing as well as endowment care. You will need to make sure that you have been provided all the information you need because the Federal Funeral Rule doesn't cover cemeteries and mausoleums unless they sell both funeral goods and funeral services.

Many funeral providers offer "pre-need contracts" that allow you to plan and pay for your funeral in advance. If you are considering a "pre-need contract," you should check it out very carefully. Here are some questions you should ask:

  • What am I purchasing? Only merchandise such as a casket and vault or also funeral services. If funeral services are included, are they described in detail.
  • Is there a written guarantee that the prepaid amount plus interest will pay for the specified funeral?
  • How is the money handled? Requirements for handling money prepaid for funeral services vary from state to state.
  • If the prepaid money is put into a trust, does the interest income on the money stay in the trust?
  • What happens if the firm goes out of business?
  • If you cancel the contract, do you receive a full refund? What are the penalties, if any?
  • Is the plan transferable if you move? Is there an additional cost?
  • What if I die away from home?
  • What items and/or services are not included in the contract? These represent potential funeral costs that may have to be paid at the time of the funeral.

Many experts recommend that you set aside money for a funeral in another form instead of using a "pre-need contract." One option is to set up a Totten Trust designated for your funeral expenses. This trust is payable on your death to the beneficiary. You continue to control the money in the trust, which means you can transfer or withdraw the money. Other options include placing the money in a shared bank account such as a savings account or certificate of deposit.

Getting Your Affairs in Order from Nolo.com has a Final Arrangements FAQ, and articles on Planning Your Funeral or Memorial Service, the Perils of Funeral Prepayment Plans, and Arranging to Donate Your Body to Medicine.

Organize Your Information

Once you have completed your estate planning, you need to make sure that you have all of your information in order. Estate planning documents usually don't cover everything that your family or an executor will need to know. In today's electronic world, many people have important information — especially financial — protected by passwords or other security measures. You need to prepare detailed instructions for your executor.

Here's a sample of information you may need to describe:

  • List those items that require a personal identification number (PIN), username & password, or other login information. Include the login information. For example,

    • Computers
    • Internet service providers and/or web hosting services
    • Email accounts
    • Online services
    • Online financial accounts
    • Software applications
    • Cell phones
    • Personal digital assistants (PDAs)
  • List how various personal property is secured. Include how to get to that property, such as passwords, combinations, or where the keys are located. Examples include:

    • Vehicle and home alarm systems
    • Home safes
    • Locked mailboxes
    • Gates
    • Locked boxes, drawers, or cabinets
  • List your safe deposit boxes. Include this information:

    • Contact information for the bank or other financial institution
    • The people who have authorized access to the box
    • The box number
    • Location of the box keys
    • Description of the box's contents
  • List anything else you have hidden away. Describe each item, its location, and the location of any documents related to the item (such as an appraisal). The list should include:

    • Financial assets that aren't stored at a financial institution
    • Valuable items that your executor/family might not find without direction
    • Other information known only to you

Once you've made your list you'll need to store it in a secure location that only your executor or other designated persons have access to. A waterproof, fireproof home safe is a good location. Tell your executor or other designated persons how to get to the information.

Don't forget to update your information periodically.