Estate planning checklist

July 23, 2021

An estate plan is important at any stage of life, but certain life events in particular can serve as motivation to get your will and other documents in order.

While most people understand the importance of estate planning, many people put it off either due to lack of motivation or because they don’t think they have enough assets to leave to anyone.1 In fact:

  • Only 24% of people ages 18-34 have an estate planning document.1
  • Only 27% of people ages 35-54 have an estate planning document.1
  • Only 45% of people over the age of 55 have an estate planning document.1

This checklist covers how your age and/or major life events might affect your estate plan, and what updates you may want to consider along the way. You might not need every estate planning document right away. However, it’s important to work with an attorney to draft these documents and update your plan throughout your life. 

Starting out on your own

Even if you’re young and healthy, accidents can happen.

  • Create a will which directs what happens to your assets if you pass away. Make a list of your bank accounts, investments, real estate and any valuables, and decide who you want to have them.
  • Choose a power of attorney for property. This person will have control over your financial affairs if you’re unable to manage them yourself. For example, if you’re in a car accident and temporarily incapacitated, your power of attorney can sign any paperwork that may be required to continue to pay your bills and manage your financial matters.
  • Designate a healthcare power of attorney. Preferably, you’ll want to choose someone who lives nearby that can be available in an emergency. A healthcare power of attorney is like a property power of attorney but specific to healthcare. Using the same accident scenario as above, this person would have the authority to make decisions regarding your medical treatment.

Getting married

While talking about worst-case scenarios can feel grim during this happy time, discussing your wishes with your partner early on can make future planning easier.

  • Be sure to revise existing wills and have an open discussion about your wishes. In most cases, you’ll likely want to name your spouse as your primary beneficiary.
  • It’s likely you’ll also want to name your spouse as your property and healthcare power of attorney. Review your wishes together.
  • Discuss your long-term goals. For instance, if you plan to have children, what kind of legacy would you like to leave them? When should they receive it?  Are there favorite charities or causes that you wish to support?

Welcoming a child

  • Name a guardian for your child. You may be able to list more than one guardian, in order of preference, to account for contingencies.
  • Be sure to add your child(ren) as a beneficiary to any wills, insurance policies, retirement plans or other assets.

Changing assets and regular maintenance

As your life progresses, your assets and family are likely to change.

  • Review your will, including assets (and how they’re titled) and beneficiaries, every two years to ensure everything is accounted for. Review more often if you experience a major change in circumstance (marriage, divorce, inheritance, retirement, etc.)
  • Consider setting up a trust. Depending on your circumstances, trusts may give you more control over your assets, both now and in the future while helping to keep your matters private. Read more about the difference between wills and trusts.

Filing for divorce or separating from a spouse

  • Update your will, trust, powers of attorney and beneficiary designations on life insurance, retirement and other accounts to reflect your new marital situation.
  • Consider updating your financial plan to assure that it’s structured to address your current and future financial needs. Read more about financial considerations in a divorce.

Getting re-married

  • Update beneficiary information on all documents related to your estate, including your will, trust, powers of attorney, insurance policies and retirement accounts.
  • Review your plans with your new spouse to help assure your individual and joint goals are met. Read more about financial considerations when marrying again.

Death of a parent or loved one

  • Make sure to review ownership and beneficiary designations for assets/accounts and any real or personal property you inherit.   
  • Consider keeping any inherited assets separate from assets held jointly with a spouse for better asset protection. Read more about managing finances after the death of a spouse.

Experiencing health changes

  • Discuss your wishes with your healthcare power of attorney.
  • Write a living will, medical directive, advanced directive or other document that details, in writing, your current wishes as it relates to your healthcare. This can include your thoughts on resuscitation, antibiotics, palliative care and more. The specifics around these documents vary by state, so it’s a good idea to work with an estate planning lawyer.


Review where you are in the estate planning process.

  • Create an estate plan if you don’t have one already.
  • Update your existing estate plan to reflect your current circumstances.

Digital assets like email, photos, social media, and online bank accounts are also part of your estate. Read more about how to protect digital assets in your estate plan.

Related content

How to protect your digital assets in your estate plan

6 tips for trust fund distribution to beneficiaries

Estate planning documents: Living trusts vs. will vs. living will

1. 2022 Estate Planning and Wills Study.

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