Personal Finance | March 12, 2021

Estate Planning: How to Help Organize Your Estate for a Smoother Transition

Should the worst come to pass, the last thing you’d want is for your family to have to track down your assets, insurance, and other information. That’s why it’s so important to draft detailed plans, ensure relevant parties are aware of your wishes, and keep all necessary documents secured in a safe, accessible place.

Here, two Schwab estate specialists offer five steps you can take now to help make the settlement of your estate as easy as possible for your loved ones.

1. Make sure your estate plan is complete and up to date

“Ideally, a full estate plan should include a financial power of attorney, a health care power of attorney, a living will, a living trust, and a last will and testament or, alternatively, a pour-over will that would automatically place any overlooked assets into your trust,” says Patrick Schultz, a tax, trust, and estate specialist with Schwab. (See “Terms of engagement,” below.)

What’s more, you should periodically reconfirm that the beneficiaries of all your insurance policies and retirement accounts are up to date. “If there’s a discrepancy between your account beneficiaries and those you’ve named in other documents, like your will, the beneficiaries named for your accounts will generally take precedence,” Patrick says.

Also be sure that ownership is assigned to all assets in a way that matches your wishes. Any financial accounts or real assets designated joint tenancy with rights of survivorship bypass probate—the lengthy legal process of validating your estate, including your will. “Joint titling makes the transfer of assets nearly seamless,” Patrick says. Be aware, however, that adding heirs as joint owners gives them the same authority over the assets as you have, and you’ll need their consent if you want to change or remove such ownership in the future.

2. Keep a master list of your accounts and real assets

Patrick recommends creating a physical spreadsheet that lists all of your financial accounts and real assets. “For any account where there’s money, include the institution, approximate value, and titling details,” he says. You can also include this information in a section of your will, or as a worksheet in your trust document.

Aside from financial accounts, it’s important to list all your bills—and how to pay them. “Many folks aren’t getting physical bills anymore, so this simple step can help keep ongoing commitments from going sideways until your heirs can close out the estate,” says Matthew Olsen, managing director of estate services at Schwab.

3. Create a list of trusted professionals

Your attorney, CPA, and financial advisor are the most important contacts to include, Patrick says, but anyone who might have a formal role in settling your estate, such as your executor, should also go on the list.

4. Secure all relevant documents—and make copies

Keep all of the documents listed previously—along with insurance policies, property deeds, and the like—in a fire- and waterproof box that can easily be located in the event of your passing. “I also encourage clients to include their most current tax returns, which can help identify any stocks or other assets you have overlooked in your plan,” Matthew says.

Patrick also recommends making copies—which are generally as good as originals in every state—and keeping them in a separate location. However, beware of storing any important documents in a safe deposit box. “If your loved ones aren’t on your list of authorized persons, it can take a court order to access the contents,” Patrick says. Conversely, you can authorize multiple people to access your safe deposit box, but each person must accompany you to the bank in question, provide proof of identification, and sign a physical authorization card.

You might also consider an online record-keeping service to store digital copies of important documents in a secure, central location. Such services typically allow you to grant other individuals access to the information during or after your lifetime.

5. Talk to your loved ones

Even with all your documents packaged up, Matthew advocates having a conversation with your family—particularly your executor. “Show them not only where all your documentation is but also how to access it,” he says. “The aftermath of your passing may not be the most comfortable topic to address, but in the end, you will have given them immeasurable peace of mind.”

What You Can Do Next

  • A good plan makes all the difference, and Schwab can help. Work one on one with a Certified Financial Planner™ professional when you enroll in Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium™. Learn more.