Retirement, Investments, & Insurance for Individuals Build your knowledge What happens to my money when I die? 6 steps to estate planning
What happens to my money when I die? 6 steps to estate planning

Not sure where to start with estate planning? Begin with a simple question: Who gets what when I die?

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5 min read |

After a lifetime chasing financial goals and caring for the people you love, you want your assets to end up with the people and causes you care about most.

Estate planning formalizes your wishes, but it’s an easy task to avoid. “You’re essentially planning for death,” says Tyler De Haan, director of Retirement Solutions at Principal®. “That’s tough to think and talk about.”

Start outlining your wishes and information for family with our estate planning workbook (PDF).

That said, it’s an important step to take at any age, even if you don’t have a big estate. Creating a plan gives you control over what happens to your assets, so those decisions aren’t left to the courts.

What’s the difference between a will and an estate plan?

Estate planning is more than just writing a will, which outlines who gets what when you die. A good estate plan also lays out who you want making financial and health care decisions if you can’t make them for yourself.

1. Prioritize your wishes.

Long before you touch the paperwork, De Haan says, begin with the question: Where do I want my money and belongings to go when I die? Prioritizing your wishes will help direct the rest of the planning process.

Common options include:

  • Supporting a surviving spouse or family members who rely on your income
  • Funding grandkids’ education
  • Leaving money to a special cause or scholarship fund

2. Check your beneficiary designations.

Designating beneficiaries on various accounts, policies, or titles allows you to choose who they’re left to; this designation generally overrides what’s written in a will. It’s a common misconception that estate planning is expensive, but taking this simple step—an essential piece of estate planning—is free.

  • Retirement accounts. You’ll typically be asked to choose beneficiaries when opening the account, or you can add/change them at any time.
  • Life insurance policies. Choose your beneficiaries when starting the policy. As with any beneficiary designation, update as your family or circumstances change.
  • Savings and investment accounts (including stocks, bonds, and mutual funds). You can set up transfer-on-death designations from the beginning. For existing accounts, contact the bank or firm that holds the account.
  • Home title. If you’re a homeowner, you can title your house with rights of survivorship, leaving it to your spouse or other joint owner without having it go through probate (a formal, legal process).

3. Create a will.

Writing a will is the foundation of estate planning, as it details all your wishes. Some people go to a lawyer for help, others use legal tools online. In your will, you’ll name an estate executor—the person who will carry out the terms—and your beneficiaries. Note that beneficiaries named on accounts will generally override anything in a will.

A will allows you to pass assets such as cars, jewelry, heirlooms, and other possessions. Make a detailed list of these items and designate who should receive what.

And if you have minor children, this is where you name a guardian after you’ve had those tough (but important) conversations with your partner and the person you’d trust to care for your kids if something happened.

4. Consider setting up a trust.

What’s a trust? A legal arrangement that provides control over your property, both while you’re living and after you die. A trust isn’t necessary for every estate plan, but in more complex situations, it can be an efficient way to pass on assets. It gives you added control over the timing and purpose of distributions. For example, if you want an inheritance to be doled out over a period of time, instead of as a lump sum, a trust can help achieve that.

Another advantage: A trust can help you avoid probate. “Trusts are private, so you don’t have to let people know what you have and what you don’t have,” De Haan says.

5. Give to charity.

Maybe you’d like your money to go toward a good cause after you’re gone. Here, you have a few options:

  • Leave a gift to a charity in your will.
  • Designate a charity as an alternative beneficiary on a retirement account or investment account.
  • Set up a charitable trust.
  • Use a donor-advised fund.

There may also be income and estate tax benefits to giving to charities.

6. Review your estate plan.

Over the years, as your circumstances and family change, so might your preferences on where you want your assets to go. “Don’t set your estate plan and just forget about it,” De Haan says. Read through it every few years and update as needed.

Estate planning is easy to put off, but the planning you do now can make a meaningful difference for your family—helping to ensure their financial footing and avoid potential conflicts when you're gone.

Next steps

  • If you participate in a retirement plan through Principal or have one of our IRAs, you and your spouse can also access free online resources to prepare your own will and other estate planning documents through ARAG®. To get started, create an account with ARAG.
  • Ask for help. A financial professional can talk you through your options. Don’t have one? Check with your HR contact to see if your company’s retirement savings plan offers this service. Or, we’ll help you find one.