Estate Planning Blog

Getting Your Estate Plan in Place

Six steps to successful estate planning


Getting your estate plan in place is sometimes known innocuously as “doing estate planning” or more ominously as “getting your affairs in order”.  There are many reasons to do it.  They range from the somewhat ordinary, like you are nervous about getting on an airplane to see a relative – to the more significant, like you are facing a serious illness and want to be prepared if things do not go well.

I recently faced this situation myself, because I had to go in for surgery to address an arterial blockage – which is unfortunately not uncommon for a man my age.  I had great faith in the skills of my surgeons.  The likelihood of a serious problem was slim, but the possibility of an adverse result was not nonexistent.  Thankfully, I received excellent care and had a successful outcome.  I offer the following six steps for getting your estate plan in place, after having just done so myself.

Step 1 – put together a list of assets

You should put together a list of all your assets.  It is important to note how all the assets are owned and what their values are.  I have written previously in these pages about the “three baskets” of assets.  The first basket is made up of those assets you own in your name only.  The second basket is comprised of assets you hold jointly with someone else.  The third basket is made up of assets that are payable to a named beneficiary.  It is important to note which basket each of your assets is in.

Step 2 – check your co-owners and beneficiaries

Basket two and three assets will go to the surviving joint owner or beneficiary, if you were to pass away.  It is important that you note who those people are, and you should ensure they are who you want them to be.  For example, you may have an IRA with a beneficiary designation that you meant to change, but you never got around to doing so.  Now is the time to get that done, so you ensure the asset goes to the beneficiary you want.

Step 3 – make sure your Will or Trust is in place

As I have mentioned previously, you will likely have a Will and/or a Trust as your main estate planning document.  Depending on your circumstances, you may have both documents and may even have more than one Trust.  Regardless of your circumstances, you should ensure the appropriate Will and/or Trust documents are updated and in place.

Step 4 – make sure you have a Health Care Proxy and POA

A health care proxy designates an agent to make health care decisions for you, if you cannot make them for yourself.  If you go into a hospital for a procedure, as I did, the hospital will ask you if you have one.  If you do not, they will suggest you do one.  In conjunction with the health care proxy, you can do a living will, which describes your wishes regarding your medical care.  A power of attorney (POA) is a document which designates an agent or agents to handle your financial decision making.  A POA is extraordinarily important to have, in the event you are temporarily or permanently disabled.

Step 5 – assemble a list of your passwords

It is the scourge of modern life that we have a plethora of passwords.  They are the gatekeepers to our finances, entertainment, and personal affairs on-line.  If you become disabled and want your power of attorney agent to handle your affairs, they may find it quite difficult if they do not have access to your passwords.  You can put them together on a physical list, which can be kept in a home safe.  Another option is to purchase an on-line password protector like Keeper or Dashlane.  Whichever method you use (potentially both), make sure to share the safe combination or master password with your trusted agent.

Step 6 – put everything together on a master list

Your master list will detail all the information from steps one through five above.  The master list should be kept in a secure place, like a home safe or safe deposit box.  Obviously, you need to share the access information to the safe or safe deposit box with your trusted agent.

Getting your estate plan in place is as simple as the six steps set forth above.  While the steps collectively may seem like a lot of work, you can easily get through them if you methodically take them one at a time.

In my twenty-seven years of law practice, I have encountered many instances where a proper estate plan was not in place and someone died or became disabled.  Depending on the circumstances, the results can range from troublesome to catastrophic.  The good news is that by simply working your way through the six steps above, you can avoid such negative outcomes and ensure your loved ones are taken care of and your wishes are carried out.

As I mentioned at the outset of this article, the inspiration for writing this column came from my own personal experience in going in for a recent surgery.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my medical providers, including my surgeons Dr. Paty and Dr. Jayakumar, my anesthesiologist Dr. Wurl, and the wonderful nurses at the Saratoga Hospital PACU – Susan, Judy, and Colleen.  They all worked together as a team and provided me with skilled and compassionate care.

Matthew J. Dorsey, Esq. is a Shareholder with O’Connell and Aronowitz, 1 Court Street, Saratoga Springs, NY. Over his twenty-seven years of practice, he has focused in the areas of elder law, estate planning, and estate administration. Mr. Dorsey can be reached at (518)584-5205, and

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