More Than Money
Issue #22

Money and Death

Table of Contents

“Estate Planning Basics”

by Martin Shenkman, CPA, M.B.A., J.D.

A will is only a small component of an estate plan. There are actually five key estate planning documents. Almost everyone, no matter how young or old, no matter how rich or poor, requires these five documents:

Durable Power of Attorney

A proper durable power of attorney is used to assure that, in the event of your illness or disability, someone can take care of financial matters for you.

Living Will and Health Care Proxy

A living will and medical health care proxy is used so that, in the event of a medical emergency, you will have established a line of authority to address the medical decisions you want carried out.


A will is used to appoint an executor (the person to manage your estate), and to exercise your right to assure that property will be distributed the way you wish. You can also use a will to name a guardian for any minor children you may have.

Emergency Financial Information

A listing of financial information must be readily available. If key personal financial information is not provided to the people you or your family will rely on in an emergency, even the best documents may be of little use.

Letter of Instruction

There are often a host of personal issues that your agents, executors, trustees, and others need to know. A personal letter can provide valuable guidance, avoid fights, and help assure your wishes are carried out. It is also a place to offer wisdom gleaned in your life to your beneficiaries.

Some Optional Documents

Given the nature of your estate, you may also need trust documents set up for insurance trusts, charitable remainder trusts, or revocable living trusts. These can help you avoid probate, minimize estate taxes, protect assets from your heirs' creditors or an heir's divorce, as well as assure proper management of insurance proceeds for those you seek to benefit. You should also consider signing documents to become an organ donor.

Hiring The Right Attorney

To complete these documents properly, you will probably need to consult an attorney specializing in estate planning. Start with recommendations from your accountant, insurance agent, or financial planner. Next, look at the attorneys in Martindale Hubbell. Most local libraries will have a copy of it. It lists a rating for attorneys and the firms where they work. It also gives background information on the attorneys. Finally, call some attorneys to inquire about their backgrounds. Always remember that the goal is for you and your estate planning team (ie., all of your advisers: lawyers, accountant, insurance broker, securities broker or financial planner, and others) to work together to achieve the goals you've identified.

Adapted from Martin Shenkman's book Estate Planning: Step-by-Step. See Resources for more information.

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