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Your Year-End Estate Planning Checklist

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You can't stop time from passing. As you are asking yourself how another year went by so quickly, take control of those things that you can control and that can give comfort and support to your loved ones: review your estate plan using this year-end estate planning checklist.

Changes in your health, your assets, or your family situation occur over the course of a year. Taking an afternoon to address what these changes mean for your estate plan can give you peace of mind in those long winter nights and provide comfort for your loved ones, too.

A Roadmap to Your Year-End Estate Planning Checklist

Your year-end estate planning checklist can be summed up in three steps: gather, review and revise, and share. Gathering current information, reviewing and revising it to make any needed adjustments, and sharing with family where to find your estate planning documents after you're gone will help you all start the new year with one less thing to worry about. Make sure your plans to take care of your family are up-to-date and complete by conducting this annual estate plan review.

Step One: Gathering and Updating Contacts for Your Estate Planning Documents

In the gathering stage, collect account statements and estate planning documents that are relevant to your overall estate plan. At a minimum, collect documentation for all of the following:

· Your will;

· The current contact information for the personal representative(s) named in your will;

· Any trust documents;

· All cash, investment, and retirement accounts;

· All life insurance policies; and

· Any other assets that will be passed on outside of your will.

Once you have gathered these documents, make sure that you have the current contact information-name, address, email, and phone number-for the relevant representative for each. For your will and any trusts, update the contact information for your estate planning attorney. For your cash, investment, and retirement accounts, verify you have the current contact information for the broker or firm where the accounts are housed. And for life insurance, make sure you have updated contact information for the agent or agents you work with.

If you store or manage any estate planning documents or accounts online, be sure to include that information, too. List the following for each online account:

· The location (device) or web address where the account or other information is stored;

· The type of information or account stored there;

· The user ID for accessing the account; and

· The password for accessing the account.

If you maintain any records within email files, be sure to leave information on how to access your email account as well.

Leaving your family without this information can make accessing needed information even harder at an already difficult time.

Step Two: Review and Identify Needed Modifications to Your Estate Plan

In the second phase of your year-end estate planning checklist, take a moment to review the assets in all your accounts. Summarize each account or interest and its value or balance, and include that summary with your estate planning documents.

Next, review your will, trust documents, and accounts and insurance policies. Over the course of a year, your family may have lost a member to death or divorce, your personal representative may be fighting a chronic illness, or a child may have attained a milestone such as reaching the age of majority or an age that triggers certain provisions in a trust document. Taking these changes into account, determine whether you need to update your executor or personal representative or beneficiary designations accordingly.

Make a list of the changes you need to make to your will, trust documents, and beneficiary designations in light of the year's events. If the changes involve updating your will or trust documents, schedule an appointment with your estate planning attorney to request those changes. For changes to beneficiary designations on accounts and insurance policies, use the contact list created in step one to request the necessary paperwork to make those updates.

Be sure to follow through with making the changes you deem necessary. Merely talking about your wishes or even writing them down and signing them is insufficient to make changes to your will, trusts, or beneficiary designations effective.

Step Three: Tell Your Loved Ones Where to Find Your Estate Planning Documents

Once you have gathered, reviewed, and updated your estate planning documents, store them in a secure location. Make sure the documents would be safe from fire or other disaster. And if you are using only digital documents, be sure you have your data backed up at a different location.

Next, tell one or more trusted family members or your attorney where to find the asset summary, contact list, and estate planning documents after your death. Be sure the location will be accessible to others. Although your personal safe deposit box may seem secure, storing your estate planning documents there would create hurdles for access after your death.

Additional Matters to Ease Your Family's Burden

Many cases have been litigated because a decedent had not changed a beneficiary designation or bequest in a will following a divorce or other family change. Head off this type of family conflict by making sure that the beneficiaries of your accounts, pensions, and policies and the bequests in your will are up-to-date.

Although more a matter of life planning than estate planning, your annual review should also include reviewing, updating contact information for, and updating any power of attorney or advanced directives you've executed. Be sure to keep these documents in a secure but accessible location, and let your family members know where to find them.

Funeral Planning: Leave Digital Instructions for Loved Ones.

Your year-end estate planning checklist would not be complete without review of your funeral planning. Your will usually won't give your loved ones specific directions about your funeral and burial, and squabbles can arise among family members when these instructions are given orally to different people. Even writing it down may be confusing if there is more than one writing.

To lighten the burden on your loved ones at their time of loss, include with your estate planning documents dated documentation on your wishes and any pre-planned funeral arrangements. Include what music you would like played at your service, what type of service you would like, the location(s) for your burial or storage or scattering of ashes, and information you want to make sure is in your obituary. If you use one of the online services available to collect and store such information, be sure to share the web address, user ID, and password with your family. Online planning services include Everplans, Planned Departure, and Final Roadmap. You can find a list of other services relating to your online presence after death at The Digital Beyond.

If funeral planning is not important to you, speak to your spouse and children or other beneficiaries about what would give them the most comfort. Don't leave them guessing and worrying about what you might have wanted.

Putting Your Year-End Estate Planning Checklist into Action

A year-end estate planning checklist is just a checklist. It doesn't work unless you follow through with your intentions and plans. Change to your estate plans will require consultation with an estate planning lawyer. For help with estate planning in West Virginia or Kentucky, call Anna M. Price at the Huntington office of Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC at (304) 523-2100 (or (866) 617-4736 toll-free). You may also email her using this online contact form to schedule a free consultation. 

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