Crucial Estate Planning Documents You Should Have

The first step in constructing an estate plan is knowing what every estate plan should have, and the ideal way to start is by speaking to an experienced California estate planning attorney. After crafting yours, updating your estate plan every five years or when a significant life event occurs is essential in order to keep it accurate.

An Estate Plan for Everyday Life

Everyone needs an estate plan. While it may seem like an estate plan only starts working after you pass away, the documents also help manage your life while alive. Someone must manage your rent and other bills when you cannot, and you may need someone to talk to your doctor if you are incapacitated. Although these situations may seem far away, they are everyday experiences that could happen at any time. A well-documented estate plan provides an easy transition of responsibility.

What Documents Are Included in an Estate Plan?

Here is a basic checklist of the crucial items every estate plan should have:

  1. Will/trust
  2. Power of attorney
  3. Beneficiary designations
  4. Letter of Intent
  5. Guardianship designations

Alongside these documents, it is crucial to account for other aspects of life with an Advance Health Care Directive, a Caregiver’s Authorization Affidavit, and more. Contact an experienced estate planning lawyer for sound advice and direction on what your estate plan should entail.


A will allows you to list your complete inventory of assets and designate where and to whom they should be distributed. This could include, but is not limited to, family members, close friends, or associates. The will goes through a probate court, and a judge determines its validity, which can be time-consuming, especially when you have many assets in your will. You may place many of your assets in a trust to simplify things.


If you would like to avoid probate court, trusts can be a helpful way to do this. The most common trusts are living trusts and irrevocable trusts.

A living trust—or revocable trust since it can be changed or canceled anytime—gives you the right to designate beneficiaries and assign assets just like a will does. You remain the trustee while you are not incapacitated. Should you become incapacitated, the trustee you name would take over the management of your assets listed in the trust. When you pass away, the trustee will oversee asset distribution per the trust’s dictation.

In an irrevocable trust, you assign your assets to a trustee immediately. This type of trust is different from a living trust in that it cannot be changed without the permission of the beneficiaries. Irrevocable trusts are usually chosen to minimize estate taxes and to protect assets.

Powers of Attorney

This document gives someone else the right to handle critical decisions on your behalf. There are two main types of powers of attorney or POA: financial and medical. A financial POA allows someone to handle your finances, while a medical POA allows someone to make medical decisions for you. Alongside a medical POA, it is important to lay out an advance directive to specify to doctors what care you wish to receive.

POAs have different timeframes. They are:

  • Temporary/limited: These are typically for a limited purpose. With this type of POA, you specify the date and time when the POA ends.
  • General: This POA applies to all matters in your life. Unless revoked, the general POA applies as long as you are alive or if you become incapacitated.
  • Durable: Like the general POA, the durable POA applies to all life matters. The key difference is that a durable POA is still valid even if you become incapacitated.
  • Springing: Though it serves the same purpose as the durable or general POAs, a springing POA only comes into effect once a designated event happens.

Letter of Intent

While not legally binding, letters of intent are informal documents that give your loved ones important information after your death. Your family or trustee uses these documents to help interpret your instructions and help the estate transfer process go smoothly.

Guardianship Designations

Guardianship designation is essential if you have children, whether through marriage or not. This term applies to “guardianship of the person” or “guardianship of the estate” in California.

  • “Guardianship of the person” refers to an individual who will have physical custody and be responsible for the needs of any children you may have. The court must approve your request and find the designated person stable mentally and financially.
  • “Guardianship of the estate” refers to the responsibility over the child’s physical assets, like bank accounts and any other property that they inherit.

While you can elect to have two separate individuals responsible for each role, usually, the same person functions as both.


Q: What Are the Most Important Estate Planning Documents?

A: The most important estate planning documents are wills, trusts, powers of attorney, beneficiary designations, letters of intent, and guardianship designations. While some of these documents, like wills and trusts, allow you to specify which of your assets should go to whom, others allow you to choose who you would like to make decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated.

Q: What Are the Four Foundational Documents of an Estate Plan?

A: The four foundational documents of an estate plan are:

  • Wills/Trusts
  • Medical Powers of Attorney
  • Financial Powers of Attorney, and
  • Letters of Intent.

While other documents may be included in an estate plan, these four are the most frequently included and most important. However, everyone’s needs are different. Speak to your lawyer about what documents you may benefit from.

Q: What Are the Three Main Priorities You Want to Ensure With Your Estate Plan?

A: To ensure a smooth estate plan, you should consider how to provide for loved ones in the way you prefer. With a will or trust, you can clearly define your beneficiaries, who will receive your assets. It’s also important to establish who you’d like to have the authority to make crucial decisions regarding your medical care and finances on your behalf.

Q: How Do You Organize Documents for Estate Planning?

A: To properly organize your documents, you should take inventory of your assets and documents, specify the location of all of your assets and documents, and leave instructions on how to access them. Your attorney can assist in the preparation and organization of these documents and your estate plan.

Hire an Experienced California Estate Planning Attorney

Estate planning entails much more than just filling out forms. To understand the ideal choices for your situation, you need the knowledge and experience of an attorney.

If you already have an estate plan or are gathering information, contact the Estate Preservation Group today. Our experienced attorney can answer your questions and assist in your estate planning process.

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