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Estate Planning Checklist: Decisions to Make Before Drafting Your Estate Documents

an older couple reviewing their estate planning checklist.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for the purpose of providing an estate planning checklist. It is to be used only for the purposes of guidance. This article is not intended to be relied upon as the giving of legal advice. It does not purport to be exhaustive. 

Estate planning is a crucial process. It allows you to make important decisions about the future of your assets, your loved ones, and even your own well-being.

Whether you have a complex or simple estate, putting an estate plan in place is a gift to your loved ones. Planning ahead for the future, seeking professional advice and creating estate planning documents has many benefits. It will make your wishes clear, can help you lower probate fees and minimize your estate trustee’s liability. 

In this blog, we will provide an estate planning checklist with many areas to consider. Let’s delve into some of the essential decisions you must make during your estate planning process.

The importance of a proper estate plan

A well-thought-out estate plan is incredibly important. Not only does it safeguard your assets, but it also ensures that your loved ones are taken care of, and your final wishes are honored.

It will help your estate trustee make decisions and move more quickly through the probate process. Without a comprehensive estate plan, the distribution of your assets can become a contentious and complex process, potentially leading to disputes among family members.

However, it’s not just about your last will and testament. You need important documents, such as your powers of attorney, to allow someone to make critical decisions about who will manage your financial and healthcare affairs if you become incapacitated. 

Who will be your executor or estate trustee? 

The executor of your estate plays a pivotal role in ensuring your wishes are carried out according to your will. Typically, spouses are named as the primary executors, but it’s important to consider alternates, such as close friends or family members, in case your spouse cannot fulfill this role. You can even select two or more individuals to act as co-executors but remember that they must work jointly to manage your estate efficiently.

Your executor administers your estate and carries out many responsibilities. Learn more about choosing the right person for your estate administration here. 

What assets do you currently own (including life insurance policies, digital assets, etc.)? 

You will want to make an up-to-date list of your significant assets, including any life insurance policies, real property and other items. With regards to property or bank accounts, are there any of them owned jointly with your spouse? 

Do you own any foreign assets? If so, note the location if outside your province. Specify the country in which these assets are located. This information is crucial for the smooth administration of your estate, as different countries have varying laws and regulations regarding foreign assets.

Who did you choose as the beneficiary when you completed the beneficiary designation for your life insurance? It’s important to ensure that your selection aligns with your estate documents.

Who are your beneficiaries? 

Making a list of beneficiaries is a fundamental aspect of estate planning. Typically, spouses designate each other as primary beneficiaries, followed by their children in equal shares. Additionally, you should plan for contingencies, such as if one of your children predeceases you, ensuring their share goes to their children (your grandchildren). 

Who will be your ultimate distribution beneficiaries?

Consider who should inherit your assets if none of your named beneficiaries are alive at your death and they leave no children behind. Common choices for ultimate distribution beneficiaries include siblings, parents, cousins, close friends, or charities. Your estate planning should reflect your preferences for these scenarios.

Would you like to create any beneficiary trusts?

If your beneficiaries include minors, you have the option of setting up a trust to manage their inheritance. You can choose between a “standard” trust, where the minor receives their full inheritance at a specified age (e.g., 18, 21, 25), or a graduated trust, which disburses the inheritance in stages. Clearly define the ages, amounts, and number of disbursements preferred to meet your objectives.

Would you like to create any other trusts? 

Trusts can serve various purposes, from minimizing estate taxes to providing for specific needs of your beneficiaries or even supporting charitable causes. Your decision to establish additional trusts should be guided by your financial goals and family dynamics.

Who will be the guardians of any minor children? 

If you have minor children, it’s crucial to appoint guardians who will take care of them if you and your spouse are unable to do so. Typically, spouses name each other as primary guardians, followed by close family members or friends as alternates. You can also designate a second alternate to ensure the well-being of your children. 

With regards to your guardians, it is advisable to make sure they know that you have chosen them for this serious responsibility.  

Are there any specific gifts or cash legacies you would like to bequeath? 

If you have particular items or cash amounts you wish to leave to specific individuals or charities, be sure to document these in your estate plan. These specific gifts ensure that your cherished possessions and causes you care about are remembered and honored.

It may be wise to include specific gifts as a schedule to your will. For example, suppose you want a specific piece of jewelry to go to a certain grandchild. However, you then lose that piece of jewelry before you pass away. A separate schedule makes it easier to update specific gifts without having to amend the entire will. 

Who will be your power of attorney for property? 

Your Attorney for Property will manage your financial affairs in the event of incapacity. Typically, spouses name each other as primary appointees, followed by alternates. 

When it comes to choosing co-attorneys, you have the option to decide whether they should act jointly or jointly and separately.

Jointly: If you choose to have your co-attorneys act jointly, they must make decisions together and reach a consensus. This approach ensures that all major financial decisions require the agreement of both co-attorneys, which can provide an added layer of security and oversight.

Jointly and separately: If you opt for joint and separate authority, your co-attorneys can make decisions together, but they can also act independently when necessary. This approach balances joint decision-making and the flexibility for each co-attorney to manage specific financial aspects without needing the other’s approval for every transaction.

You also need to specify when their power of attorney will come into effect. You can decide whether it should take effect immediately upon signing or only upon your incapacity. 

If you grant them immediate authority, they can begin managing your financial affairs as soon as the document is executed. This means avoiding any delay involved with determining that you are incapable of managing your affairs. However, it also means that they can make decisions without your direct involvement, which may not be suitable for everyone.

Who will be your power of attorney for personal care? 

Your Attorney for Personal Care is responsible for making medical and healthcare decisions on your behalf if you become unable to do so. Typically, spouses choose each other as primary appointees, followed by alternates. Again, if you appoint co-attorneys, decide whether they should work jointly or jointly and separately.

In addition to these decisions, there are other factors to consider.

You should clearly state your organ donor status within this document to ensure your preferences regarding organ donation are respected.

Furthermore, you may want to consider whether your appointee should receive compensation for their role, as serving as an Attorney for Personal Care can be a demanding responsibility.

Lastly, suppose you hold specific religious or cultural beliefs that are important to you with respect to medical treatment and end-of-life care. In that case, it is essential to include them in your document. This will help guarantee that your healthcare choices align with your personal values, providing assurance and preserving the integrity of your healthcare decisions.

What are your burial wishes?

Finally, consider your burial wishes. This may include decisions about cremation, burial, or even specific details such as the choice of cemetery. If you have pre-planned your funeral, provide these details to ensure your wishes are carried out.

Regularly update your estate plan.

Life is constantly evolving, and so should your estate plan. Major life events such as marriage, divorce, the birth of children or grandchildren, changes in financial situations, and even changes in tax laws can all have a significant impact on your estate planning needs. By revisiting and updating your estate plan periodically, you can make necessary adjustments, address any new concerns, and guarantee that your loved ones are well-protected and that your assets are distributed as you intend.

Consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney, as well as receiving accounting or similar professional advice can help you navigate these changes and ensure that your estate plan remains a reflection of your current wishes and goals. 

Get started on your estate plan today!

Estate planning is a complex process that involves making a myriad of decisions. You must carefully select of an executor, beneficiaries, guardians, and more.

Our estate planning checklist is just the beginning of creating your estate plan . When it comes to the complex legal aspects of planning your estate, Beeksma Law is your trusted and experienced partner. We primarily focus on estate law and with our estate litigation experience, we have the unique ability to craft legal documents that not only reflect your intentions but also minimize potential liabilities.

By reaching out to Beeksma Law, you can be confident that we will handle your estate planning needs with professionalism and expertise, protecting your assets and legacy for future generations.

Should You Update Your Estate Plan in 2023?

Disclaimer: This article on your estate plan is intended for the purposes of providing information only and is to be used only for the purposes of guidance. This article is not intended to be relied upon as the giving of legal advice and does not purport to be exhaustive.

The beginning of a new year is always an exciting time. It’s a time to reflect on the past year and set new goals for the upcoming one. For many people, a new year means thinking about the future. While none of us like to think about our eventual end, it’s important to consider that reality when considering our future.

You may have a will prepared, but your estate plan is not a “one and done” exercise. In this article, we’ll consider whether you should add “update my estate plan” to your 2023 plans (and how we can help if that is the case).

Your Estate Plan is More Than Your Will

First, let’s address a common misconception. Your estate plan is not just your will. While that document is certainly an important part of the larger plan, it’s only one piece. An effective estate plan may also include trusts and durable powers of attorney for personal care and property.

We talked all about powers of attorney here, but to summarize, there are two types of powers of attorney that you would need in Ontario. One relates to your personal care – the person you name your “attorney for personal care” will make decisions about your medical and lifestyle choices in the event you cannot. The other power of attorney is for property – this is the person who will manage your financial matters if you are unable to do so.

You may have trusts, like a resulting trust, that are part of your estate plan. Or you may not have trusts in place but now realize that it would be prudent to do so.

When updating your estate plan, you’ll want to make sure to review all of those documents or create any documents that are not currently in place.

Life Changes to Consider

As we noted above, your estate plan is not something that you do once. Your estate plan should reflect your life. As we know, life changes.

Here are some questions to consider. Since you created or last updated your estate plan, have you:

  • Gotten married, divorced or remarried
  • Had children
  • Purchased or adopted a pet
  • Started a business
  • Changed the structure of your business (for example, incorporated your business)
  • Moved to another province
  • Purchased or inherited any property
  • Had a material change in your financial situation
  • Had second thoughts about who should be the guardians of your minor children?
  • Thought about introducing new timelines for when minor children would inherit your estate?
  • Had any other significant life change?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then it’s time to update your estate plan. When updating an existing plan, you’ll want to consider how the changes in your life will impact your estate plan.

If you fail to update your estate plan to reflect your current situation, it could mean that certain assets may not be distributed in the way that you intended. Your executor may have to go to court to obtain direction on how to proceed. This could mean that assets are frozen until the court provides direction, which could delay the distribution of assets and create additional costs.

Therefore, updating your estate plan is important to ensure that it reflects your current situation.

Changes to your executors and attorneys

Speaking of your executor, we have spoken before about how to choose an executor and how important that role is in the estate planning process. We have also written about the role of an alternate executor in case your primary choice is unable or unwilling to serve as executor. If you have powers of attorney, you will have people appointed in those documents to serve as your attorney.

Therefore, it would be prudent for you to review who you have named as executors and alternates in your existing estate plan. You may want to update that list if you are uncertain that your original choices can still operate in that capacity.

For example, perhaps your current executor now suffers from ill health and is unlikely able to take on that responsibility. Perhaps your relationship with that person is not as solid as it once was. Or maybe your estate has become more complex and it may make more sense to appoint a professional executor.

In any event, reviewing those appointments can help you be sure that your executors and attorneys are still the right choices.

Title Changes and Your Property

Many clients are coming to us because they want to transfer their property (like a cottage) to their children while they are still alive.

We have an entire article dedicated to that here but, as it relates to estate planning, transferring a property into joint tenancy or to the children while you are alive will impact your existing Will and other estate planning documents.

You need to make sure your intent is clear, and you may need to put additional documents in place. It’s not as simple as transferring the title – you really need to speak to your lawyer and accountant to ensure the transaction is structured in a way that reflects your wishes and that no additional taxes or probate fees will be due.

What if I don’t have an estate plan?

What if you don’t have an estate plan at all? An estate plan is not just for the wealthy or those who have a lot of property to pass on – it’s actually very important for everyone. An estate plan helps your family understand how you want your affairs handled if something were to happen to you and can save them a lot of time, effort, confusion and money.

If you don’t have an estate plan in place, we encourage you to make it a priority in 2023. If we have learned anything from the past few years, life can change quickly and without warning.

Go into 2023 with peace of mind

While no one wants to think about passing away, it is one reality that we all have to face at some point. What we leave behind is fully within our control. What kind of legacy are you leaving for your family?

The best gift you can give to your family is the peace of mind of knowing what your wishes are and making it easier for them once you pass on. At Beeksma Law, we want to help you do that. Let us know if you need help updating your estate plan and entering the new year with peace of mind.