It’s that time of year again: time to make your New Year’s Resolutions. There’s no shortage of articles out there on the topic: the history of the practice, secrets of people who keep their resolutions, and lists of suggested resolutions for work and health and even for online identity protection. You can even find out what the most popular resolution in your state is. (Weight loss in New Hampshire and a healthier lifestyle in Massachusetts, if you’re local and curious.)
I’d like to add my own modest contribution to this pile of suggestions: Get your estate planning in order. Get a will and maybe a trust, organize your financial information and decide who should take care of your children. It’s not as much fun as learning to ski or to bake, but it could be the most important thing you ever do for your family.
“Estate planning” sounds daunting, but is really just the process of organizing your financial records, writing down your wishes, and making sure you have the right legal documentation. Here are a few steps you can take to get you started:
- Get organized. The more you know about what you have and what you want, the easier it will be for your lawyer to draft the right plan for you. Make a list of your bank accounts, retirement and investment accounts, and insurance policies. You should also make a list of your debts, including student loans, mortgages, and any consumer debt. Personal finance websites like Mint can help you get started.
- Make some decisions. Who would you want to take care of your children if you couldn’t? Who should make financial or medical decisions for you if you’re incapacitated? You don’t have to have a final choice before scheduling a consultation to have your will done, but it’s helpful to think about it in advance.
- Find a lawyer. I know I’m not totally unbiased here, but there are plenty of reasons paying a lawyer to get your estate plan is money well spent. Estate planning is complicated, and you will probably have a lot of questions. Lawyers are trained to recognize your specific areas of risk and to educate you so that you can make the best decisions for you and your family. Knowledge is power. If you don’t know a lawyer, ask friends if they have one they like. State bar associations also keep lists of lawyers and can refer you to one in your area.
- Get at least a basic estate plan. There are all sorts of complex estate planning techniques out there, but even the most basic plan is better than nothing, and it’s okay to start simple. Get a will, a power of attorney, and some health care planning documents. Make sure that your documents reflect your wishes- you want to control who receives your assets or who has control over them and over you if you’re incapacitated. These documents can also save you a lot of money in court and attorney fees if you are incapacitated.
- Update your beneficiaries. The best-drafted will in the world can’t change your beneficiary designations, so make sure that you check to make sure your life insurance, retirement accounts, and other financial assets will be passing to the people you want them to go to.
- Update your plan every few years. Life goes on after you get your estate plan completed. It’s a good idea to check in with your lawyer every few years to make sure your plan still reflects your wishes. Major life changes are also a good time to check in- births, marriages, deaths, divorces, retirement, and moving to another state are all examples of the types of events that should trigger an estate plan review.
I can’t lie- I know this doesn’t sound like the most fun of resolutions. I promise this, though- you’ll feel better when it’s done. I do a lot of estate plans for a lot of clients, and they all love being able to check it off their to-do lists. Make 2016 the year you’re finally going to cross it off yours.