Estate Planning Articles

Key Elements of Estate Planning

by Retirement Tips

Apr 10, 2024

Components of Estate Planning

Most people agree that estate planning is a necessary personal finance task regardless of wealth (though it is vital for large estates). But estate planning tends to be uncomfortable for many people, as it involves confronting your mortality – not to mention having some potentially difficult conversations with family members.

Estate planning is vital for ensuring your financial affairs are easy to settle for your heirs. It can also help reduce the estate and inheritance taxes owed, leaving more money for your family. Estate planning should be considered a process other than a one-time task.

Many people also need to know the various estate planning tools available for protecting their wealth or the processes involved. These can be used to protect personal property, lower estate taxes, and ensure your wishes are honored. Because of the potential tax implications, estate planning should be performed along with tax planning.

Key Legal Elements of an Estate Plan

Last Will and Testament

A Will is a legal document that outlines how you would like your assets to be distributed after you die. Your choice is among the essential estate planning documents you can have to ensure that your wishes are honored after you pass.

When you write your Will, you also assign an executor. This person will be tasked with carrying out your wishes. Writing a Will also allows you to direct exactly how your property, financial assets (such as bank accounts), and personal possessions are distributed.

Some estate assets, such as life insurance proceeds, retirement plan accounts, and annuities, will pass to designated beneficiaries.

Protect your Will from a potential contest.

Emotions can run high after a loved one’s death, and if one or more of your heirs believe they weren’t treated fairly, they may decide to contest your Will. When writing, you will; it’s essential to take steps that help ensure that it will hold up in court if they do.

Who can contest a Will?  

Only your spouse, children, and people named in your Will can contest your Will. They can only do so for legitimate reasons such as your incapacity or fraud. Heirs can’t contest a will simply because they don’t agree with your final wishes or if their feelings are hurt about how you decided to distribute your assets.

couple reviewing an estate planning document

How can a will be protected? 

Here are some tips to help your heirs avoid a will contest:

1. Set up your Will properly. 

As with almost all legal matters, creating a Will is NOT a DIY project. Here are some of the things to include in your Will:

  • The full names of all your intended heirs.
  • The proper names of anyone you want to exclude expressly.
  • Your Will should name both an executor and an alternate executor
  • If you have minor children, your will should name their guardian(s).
  • In most cases, you must sign your Will in the presence of two independent witnesses.

2. Review your Will often.

As your life circumstances shift, your wishes may, too. Make sure you look over your Will at least annually and as your health conditions change.

3. Remember the in-terrorem clause.

Otherwise known as the “no-contest” clause, it is designed to “scare” your heirs away from the idea of fighting over your final wishes. Under this clause, if an heir contests your Will and loses, they will get nothing. However, note that different implications depend on the state you live in. In some states, a no-contest clause isn’t enforceable if there is probable cause (for example, if you were under undue influence when you executed the Will).

4. Talk to your family about your Will.

If you’re married, many states will not let you disinherit your surviving spouse (although you may do so with siblings, children, grandchildren, and other family members). While discussing your final wishes may be an uncomfortable topic, it can save a lot of drama for your family after you’re gone.


If you die without a will, your assets will pass through probate court. Probate is a court-led legal process for administering your estate.

While laws vary by state, probate typically looks like this:

  • The case is initiated in court.
  • The court determines that the decedent had no Will and appoints an administrator (usually a family member of the decedent) who then must gather the estate’s assets, identify heirs, and notify the decedent’s creditors.
  • The administrator liquidates assets to pay debts, estate taxes (and any other tax liability outstanding), and administrative costs. After these expenses are settled, the court will transfer the remaining assets to the estate’s heirs.

The probate process tends to be lengthy (two years or more) and expensive, as the administrator must receive court approval before every action. Your estate plan should be designed to help your heirs avoid dealing with probate.


Trusts are legal documents that set forth rules and requirements for your beneficiaries to receive your assets, usually with some favorable tax treatment (certain types of trusts allow your estate to avoid inheritance or gift taxes), to avoid the probate process.

Many types of trusts can be used for estate planning under two main groups: revocable and irrevocable.

revocable trust can be modified after creation by the trust owner or grantor. In contrast, an irrevocable trust cannot be altered without the permission of the named beneficiary or beneficiaries of the Trust.

Consider establishing a trust if you have minor children or grandchildren to whom you would like to bequeath money (or a beneficiary who may not have the best money-management skills). It would be best to assign a trustee as a fiduciary to administer the Trust. 

Read more: The Spendthrift Trust: An Estate Planning Tool That Protects Your Heirs from Excess Spending.

Life Insurance

Life insurance proceeds can replace earnings, protect wealth, pay debts, and cover your dependents’ education or daily living costs.

The most specific policy pays proceeds in a single tax-free lump sum to your beneficiary; however, many other payment options are available.

Life insurance ensures that the proceeds of your policy pass to beneficiaries without going through probate. In that case, you must ensure that at least one named beneficiary survives you. Otherwise, those proceeds will (in most cases) be used to pay your final bills.

This is another reason why it is essential to regularly review your estate plan as circumstances change and update beneficiary designations as needed.

Power of Attorney

Power of attorney (POA) gives someone the authority to make confident financial decisions if they become incompetent or incapacitated and cannot make such decisions themselves.

Power of attorney documents can be either durable or springing. Durable POAs are adequate immediately and continue in effect if you become incapacitated. Springing POAs are only effective after you become incapacitated.

Specific language must be included in your documents to allow the person(s) named to carry out your wishes and manage your retirement accounts if you become incapacitated. It is important to note that your plan beneficiaries only have Power of Attorney if your document explicitly states this.

Three Key Details About Power of Attorney

The person assigned becomes an agent legally required to act in the best interests of the person for whom they have Power of Attorney, including not using the money on themselves. Here are three key details to keep in mind:

1. POA can be granted in two scopes:

  • General, which provides control of all accounts to the extent legally possible.
  • Limited, which grants a more limited scope of authority.

Note that many financial institutions will not honor a generic Power of Attorney and will require the completion of their documents.

2. POA can come into force in three ways: 

  • “Springing,” which comes into force at the moment of incapacity.
  • Durable comes into force as soon as it is authorized and lasts indefinitely.
  • Nondurable grants authority for a fixed period or a specific transaction.

3. POA can be revoked or changed.

Living Will

Living Wills are also known as advanced medical directives, healthcare power of attorney, or designation of healthcare surrogate. This document outlines your wishes regarding what medical care and procedures you do or do not want to receive if you become critically ill and cannot speak for yourself.

A living Will covers palliative and end-of-life care and whether you wish to donate your organs after death, but it does not appoint anyone to speak on your behalf; it simply allows you to state your wishes in advance.

Living Trust

Living trusts are legal entities in which the creator is typically the owner (grantor), the beneficiary, and the trustee (in the case of a revocable living trust) simultaneously.

As the grantor, you create a living trust and transfer your assets into the Trust’s ownership. As trustee, you manage, invest, and spend the assets owned by the living Trust to benefit the beneficiary. However, you may want to name a successor trustee if incapacitated. Depending on your investments, you may not need a living trust.

Benefits of living Trusts

  • Putting accounts/assets in Trust helps ensure they benefit the account holder for their lifetime.
  • The terms of the Trust can be changed at any point, including termination of the Trust.
  • The Trust must be administered by a trustee with a fiduciary responsibility to act in the interest of the Trust’s beneficiary.
  • Most financial institutions accept Trusts.
  • Trust can bypass probate or can be terminated upon the beneficiary’s death.
  • Trusts can have a successor Trustee who takes over after the beneficiary’s death or a co-trustee who can manage the Trust immediately.

Potential Downsides of Living Trusts

  • A co-trustee could act irresponsibly. However, the creator can revoke the co-trustee and name a new co-trustee.
  • The Trust must be funded in advance of the creator’s incapacity.
  • Trusts are more expensive to establish and administer.
  • Assets in the Trust are not protected from creditors.

family discussing estate planning

Talking About Your Estate Plan with Your Family

While wanting to avoid discussing estate planning with your family is understandable, it’s an integral part of estate planning. It may be helpful to have it before you finalize some plan elements that can’t be changed, like irrevocable trusts.

If you’re not sure how to talk about your estate plan with your family, here are some tips that can help:

Consider your family’s special circumstances before planning your meeting.

Perhaps you have a blended family, with stepchildren and biological children not receiving an equal inheritance. Or maybe one of your children has a problem with addiction or is otherwise financially irresponsible. It’s not uncommon for families to deal with complex or sensitive situations. Still, planning how you want to handle these discussions is essential.

Set up a time and location that works for everyone.

If your kids have young children, they should arrange for childcare so they have fewer distractions during the meeting.

It will also be helpful for everyone to have an idea of how long the meeting will run. For most people, two hours will be enough. However, you may need more time or multiple sessions depending on how complex your financial and familial situations are. If you’re working with an advisor to create your estate plan, they can help determine your needed time.

Most experts say choosing a familiar, comfortable, and private place for the meeting is best. Many people wind up having meetings at their homes. Having your session around a kitchen or dining room table might work.

Create an agenda

Outline the topics you plan to cover during the meeting and decide if it makes sense to distribute them to everyone beforehand. You know your family, so giving them a detailed agenda ahead may be outside everyone’s best interest.

While creating an agenda may seem unnecessary or overly formal, having your ideas on paper will help accomplish a few things.

First, it will keep your meeting on track and ensure you cover everything you wish while having all the essential players in the same room. When some families get together, conversations can quickly go off track. A written agenda will help you stay focused.

Second, it may help your children or other beneficiaries to think of questions or concerns you can discuss during the meeting.

Here are some topics, in no particular order, that you may want to include in your agenda:

  • The healthcare power of attorney/living Wills
  • Life insurance policies
  • Wills
  • Real estate
  • Tangible assets, such as art, jewelry, cars, and other collectibles
  • Trusts
  • Desired funeral arrangements

Consider including your advisor or attorney in the meeting.

retired couple speaking to advisor or attorney, financial advisors, personal finance, financial planners

There’s a good chance someone will raise a technical question you need help with during your family meeting. Your estate attorney or financial advisor is a valuable resource. Consider having them join you, especially if your family already knows them.

Consider holding a similar family meeting every 2-3 years.

Lives can change a lot in that time. Marriages, divorces, births, and deaths may mean changes to your estate plan. It would help if you kept your children and beneficiaries informed of these.

How to make an estate plan that protects your assets and wishes

Understanding how these different elements of estate planning work and making the best choices for your situation can be confusing and frustrating. Married couples, for example, have different estate planning needs than single people. Making a plan that effectively protects your assets and wishes involves a variety of legal documents. It will be challenging and time-consuming to do on your own.

This is why it is best to get professional help and work with an experienced financial professional who understands the various elements of estate planning and the legal requirements of each one. Our professional advisors are experienced in estate planning and would love to help you navigate these important decisions. Click here to request a no-cost, no-obligation consultation to get started.

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Retirement Tips

Retirement Tips is an educational blog dedicated to helping workers and retirees become more knowledgeable about retirement and financial planning.

We want to help readers learn more about their retirement investing options, programs like Medicare and Social Security, and difficult-but-important topics like long-term care and estate planning.

Our goal is to help you make more informed decisions when it comes to your retirement and to make it easier for you to connect with an advisor in your area should you need professional financial advice.

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