Photo of a family who has organized their estate planning documents.

Estate planning checklist

You’ve worked hard for what you have. Creating a legacy or estate plan can help protect it, and your loved ones, if something happens to you. But the task can feel overwhelming to tackle. It might explain why nearly 70% of people don’t have the most basic estate plan document—a will.1

Gathering and safely storing copies of documents and key pieces of information is a favor to yourself and those you love the most. “Organizing your assets may make the element of grief more bearable,” says Patti Bell, a CPA for Principal®.

Use this list of estate documents to assemble everything you need to accomplish the job, including pieces related to your assets, insurance, accounts, and most importantly, your wishes.

Legal documents

Your estate plan is generally governed by state law.

Last will and testamentDocument used to clearly outline your wishes for property distribution and care of minor children. It names beneficiaries, an executor, and guardians for children. “People often make a will and never go back to it,” Bell says. “Review it every year or two, or when a life event occurs.”
TrustThis arrangement is used to control property while you’re living and after you die. There are many types of trusts, but the most common and basic is the Revocable Living Trust, which names a trustee responsible for following your wishes for the property in the trust. (This type of trust may also be edited or changed.) It also outlines who receives the property, and when.
Health care power of attorneyIf you’re unable to make decisions because of your health, you can use this to appoint someone to make them on your behalf. These decisions may be difficult, so the person must understand your values and wishes.
Living will /advanced directiveUsed by health care professionals as a guide to your wishes for your end-of-life medical care.
Financial power of attorney“If you’re unable to make financial decisions, you can name someone to make them for you,” says Stanley Poorman, a financial professional with Principal. It’s only effective while you’re alive and gives someone permission to manage your legal and financial matters. Choose someone you fully trust.

Contracts

Unlike estate documents such as a will, these are all considered “contracts you make with a company, and they’re obligated to pay benefits to whomever is named,” Poorman says. Beneficiary designations should be current and aligned with your total estate plan.

Life insurance policiesReview policy dates and beneficiaries at least yearly.
Other insurance plansProvide health and dental insurance, homeowners or renters insurance, and auto insurance.
InvestmentsThis includes retirement accounts (IRAs, 401(k)s), bonds, mutual funds, pension plan, and annuities. Detail all plans, including those that are part of a compensation package. In your legacy plan, include information on how the accounts transfer after death.
Deeds or loans to large assetsThis covers items such as cars, homes, and boats.
Business detailsInclude a copy of the buy-sell agreement, transition plans, key roles, and other information.

Graphic of a thumbtack. Tip: Review ownership designations and beneficiaries on a regular basis—annually, and when you experience a big life event such as marriage or the birth of a child. For example, homes can be owned in a variety of ways. Even checking accounts can have different beneficiary designations. Your choice impacts who receives the asset and how they receive it after you die.

Other accounts and information to include in your full estate plan

Copy of net worth and budgetList assets and liabilities, as well as income and expenses.
Social Security number and detailsA website or FAQ with details about where to make a claim, potential benefits, and collection options can be helpful for heirs.
Bank accounts and safe deposit box informationRecord all checking and savings accounts, and where to find the safe deposit keys.
Credit cardsInclude a copy of your latest credit report listing all credit card accounts, even those not actively used.
Key relationshipsMake sure your heirs have contact information for your financial professional, insurance agent, estate attorney, accountant, executor, beneficiaries, trustee, and any other people of interest.
Computer and social mediaInclude user IDs and passwords.
Professional or personal membershipsSome organizations, such as veterans’ groups, may offer death benefits. Include member numbers, websites, and mailing addresses.
Final arrangementsDetail any wishes you’ve decided on ahead of time.

Include the following information for every account in your estate plan:

  • Institution name
  • Physical mailing address and phone number
  • Contact phone number
  • Username
  • Password

Graphic of a thumbtack. Tip: Make sure your beneficiary designations are properly updated for payable on death (POD) and transfer on death (TOD) accounts.

Storing your estate plan documents

Some people may keep a binder with all the documents and contracts that are part of your legacy plan. (Keep it in a safe spot, such as a locked file cabinet.) Others may prefer a digital copy.

“Your storage method depends on you and what you’re comfortable with,” Bell says. “What matters is the commitment to reviewing it regularly.”

Your executor, spouse, partner, or other designated, trusted individual should have access to these documents. Want more guidance on a system? Read our “5 steps to organizing personal finances.”

What to do next?

1 https://www.caring.com/caregivers/estate-planning/wills-survey/

The subject matter in this communication is educational only and provided with the understanding that Principal® is not rendering legal, accounting, investment advice or tax advice. You should consult with appropriate counsel or other financial professionals on all matters pertaining to legal, tax, investment or accounting obligations and requirements.

Insurance products and plan administrative services provided through Principal Life Insurance Co. Securities offered through Principal Securities, Inc., 800-547-7754, member SIPC and/or independent broker-dealers. Investment advisory products offered through Principal Advised Services, LLC. Principal Life, Principal Securities, and Principal Advised Services are members of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, Iowa 50392.