Basic estate plan documents everyone should have

Basic estate plan documents everyone should have

By Erin Itkoe, Senior Wealth Counselor

It doesn’t matter if you are single, married, young, old, wealthy, or poor, there are a few basic estate documents all adults should have completed and executed. No ifs, ands, or buts.

The four estate plan documents all adult needs are:

  • Financial Power of Attorney (POA) – authorizes an appointed person (i.e. your agent) to handle your financial matters on your behalf. This can occur when you are no longer able to handle your financial matters or you chose not to. It’s important to note that a financial POA does not give the agent any ownership rights to your property; it simply allows him/her to act on your behalf.
  • Healthcare Power of Attorney (POA) – authorizes your agent to make medical decisions only if you no longer have the mental capacity to do so. The duty of the agent is to do what he/she thinks you would do in a given situation (i.e. make the same decision you would make if able to do so). This also includes related matters such as who should be told of your condition and who should be allowed to visit you.
  • Living Will – states what your wishes are in certain medical situations. Examples include life support/ventilators, artificial nutrition/hydration, etc. It can also include your wishes for organ donation, disposition of remains, religious issues, and family/other emotional issues. A living will comes into play in the end-of-life setting, which generally is if you are terminally ill and mentally incapacitated. It can definitely help guide your Healthcare POA in making your medical decisions.
  • Last Will and Testament – states who the executor of your estate is. It also states how your assets should be distributed, how expenses should be handled, and who should be the guardian of your children (if applicable). Unlike your POAs and Living Will, your Will does not become effective during your life. It becomes effective upon your death.


Some of the most important documents you sign are your Powers of Attorney because they authorize an agent to act on your behalf while you are still living. You don’t have to name the same person to serve in each role. Often times it’s best to name one person to handle your financial matters and someone else to handle your medical matters because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. You want to name the people you think will best carry out your wishes. It’s also important to list several people to serve in each role. You want a reserve bench willing to serve in the event someone is unable to serve when the time comes. You don’t want the courts to name who will serve in these roles.

That being said, people change, priorities change, and circumstances change, which is why these documents should be reviewed periodically. None of these documents are irrevocable, which means they can be updated at any time. It’s very important to review your documents periodically to confirm they still match your current situation and wishes. If they don’t, it’s important to not only update the documents, but also execute them. If you fail to do this, it can be extremely difficult and complicated for your current wishes to be followed.

When a loved one is ill or dies, family dynamics are inevitably involved, which is why it’s extremely important to have conversations with everyone about your wishes while you are still mentally competent. I know an elderly woman who suffered from severe dementia for the past years and recently passed away. Fortunately, she shared her wishes with her family multiple times before her dementia progressed. Unfortunately (and against the family’s urging), she didn’t update her estate plan documents and the wrong person was left with all of the legal authority. As a result, it was very difficult for the family to get her the care she needed during the last few years of her life and family members had to fight to give her the burial and funeral she wanted. This resulted in much unnecessary stress in the final years of this woman’s life and delayed the family’s grieving process. Most importantly, the woman didn’t necessarily receive the care she needed or would have wanted and almost didn’t receive the burial/funeral she wanted. All of this could have been prevented if she had reviewed and updated her estate plan documents while she still had the mental capacity to do so.  
Due to their nature, Incapacity and death are never high on our list of things to think or talk about. But the more we can prepare and plan for it, the more likely our wishes will be followed and the stress on our family and loved ones will be reduced. If you don’t already have these documents in place or haven’t reviewed them in awhile, it’s extremely important to make this a priority. Your Versant Wealth Counselor can help guide you through the estate planning process.


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