Estate Planning Checklist and Tips That Aren't Just for the Wealthy

You've worked hard to build your assets. An estate planning checklist can be helpful for any income level. Learn about 529 plans and other tax-advantaged strategies. couple with arms around each other gazing at their family: Estate planning basics
4 min read
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Key Takeaways

  • Estate planning can be helpful for any income level
  • Make sure the beneficiaries named in your financial accounts match the intentions set forth in your will
  • Learn about 529 plans and other tax-advantaged strategies that can be employed now

None of us likes to think about dying—and what will happen to our money afterward. However, estate planning is an important part of managing your finances.

One common misconception is that estate planning isn’t necessary if your estate’s assets amount to less than the 2022 federal estate tax exemption of $12.06 million per individual. However, pretty much anyone can benefit from estate planning, which is designed to help protect your assets for your heirs.

What Is Estate Planning?

Estate planning is the process by which you determine how your assets should be handled when you’re no longer capable of making financial decisions.

“We often think of estate planning as something the ultra wealthy do,” said Dara Luber, senior manager at Schwab. “However, estate planning can be anything from setting up a will or trust to making sure you have the right beneficiaries to creating a health care directive.” While more than 50% of Americans think estate planning is at least “somewhat important,” only 33% of Americans have a will or living trust, according to the 2022 Wills and Estate Planning Study from senior care living referral service company 

As for their reason for delay, more than 40% of Americans told the senior living referral service that it’s all about procrastination. But when asked to provide more detail, one in three said they haven’t explored the process because they don’t believe that they have enough assets to pass along to loved ones. 

The survey also found that high earners are not always high planners—of those without estate planning documents, 63% who make $80,000 or more per year reported they “just haven’t gotten around” to preparing an estate plan.

“Your estate planning moves today can make a big difference later,” Luber explained. “With the right estate plan in place, you can reduce the chances your heirs will have to deal with probate and reduce the amount of money that ends up in the hands of taxing authorities.”

Estate Planning Checklist

As you manage the estate planning basics, it can help to have an idea of what to expect. Here’s an estate planning checklist that can help you make the most of your money.

Refer to this handy estate planning checklist to help you make the most of your money.

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Create a Will

The first thing many people think about when estate planning is the will. Your will is one way to let people know how you want your assets taken care of after you pass. A will can include what you want done with your various accounts but also how to distribute other property.

On top of that, you’ll want to include information about who should act as guardians for children and pets. And you’ll need to designate a trusted executor to oversee the will.

“While there are digital estate planning options that can help you craft a basic will, you might want to consider an estate planning attorney,” Luber explained. “There are specific state laws, including where your executor lives and other items, that a seasoned estate planning lawyer can help with.”

Name Your Beneficiaries

Review your beneficiaries and make sure they’re up to date.

“Who you have listed on your life insurance policy, retirement account, and in other places matters more than what’s in your will,” Luber noted. “When you have a major change to your life circumstances, go back through your beneficiaries, update your will, and make sure everything matches.”

This includes charities as well as individuals. There are a number of estate planning strategies designed to help you pass your assets on, but none of them matter if you don’t have your beneficiaries properly identified.

Note: If you’re a TD Ameritrade client, managing your beneficiaries is straightforward and can be done online.

Consider an Estate Planning Trust

Estate planning trusts can be great tools to pass your assets on while potentially helping your heirs avoid the sometimes expensive and drawn-out process of probate. There are many different trust configurations, which can be used to provide a variety of benefits depending on what matters most to you and your situation.

Luber suggested that speaking with a knowledgeable professional is one way to help you set up a trust designed to meet your needs.

Power of Attorney

Estate planning isn’t just about what happens after you pass, though. It also includes the paperwork involved should you become incapacitated. Preparing the proper documentation for assigning a power of attorney to make decisions on your behalf is important.

“Don’t forget about health care directives and proxies,” Luber mentioned. “Look for someone you trust to handle these decisions and consider using an estate planning attorney to ensure that everything is as it should be.”

While there are online estate planning services and documents, they don’t always hold up in the end, and they might be harder to customize, especially if your situation is complex.

Consider Giving Now

You don’t need to wait until you’re gone to provide resources to your family and heirs.

“Estate planning can also involve giving now while your heirs and others can use the resources,” Luber said. “In fact, it can be more fulfilling to watch your money being used at present.”

In 2022, it’s possible to give up to $16,000 to each recipient without paying the gift tax (which is paid by the giver, not the recipient). If you’re married, each spouse can give $16,000, for a total of $32,000. On top of that, it’s possible to front-load contributions to a 529 plan, so if you have beneficiaries you want to help with college, you can put in up to five years’ worth of gifts (up to $80,000) in the 529 plan.

When you give to charity now, instead of waiting until you pass, you can claim a tax deduction, whether you donate directly, give stock, or set up a donor-advised fund. This allows you to benefit now—along with your beneficiaries.

Bottom Line on Estate Planning

You’ve worked hard to build your assets and make the most of your money. Estate planning is about helping your legacy live on after you pass. Carefully consider what you want done with your assets and then create a plan designed to increase the chances that everything will be distributed as you wish.


Key Takeaways

  • Estate planning can be helpful for any income level
  • Make sure the beneficiaries named in your financial accounts match the intentions set forth in your will
  • Learn about 529 plans and other tax-advantaged strategies that can be employed now
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