Estate Planning Document Essentials

May 30, 2013 | By Steven DiGregorio

Did you know that several states have investigated some of the country’s largest insurers for failing to pay out unclaimed life policies to beneficiaries? Under policy contracts, they aren’t required to take steps to determine if a policyholder is still alive, but instead pay a claim only when beneficiaries come forward.

The lesson here: It isn’t enough simply to sign a bunch of papers establishing an estate plan and other end-of-life instructions. You also have to make your heirs aware of them and leave the documents where they can find them.

Last Will & Testament

Last Will & Testament

The financial consequences of failing to keep your documents in order can be significant. According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, state treasurers currently hold over $30 billion in unclaimed bank accounts and other assets. How do you know if you have unclaimed assets? You can search for unclaimed assets at

We recommend that our clients create a comprehensive folder of documents family members can access in case of an emergency, so they aren’t left scrambling to find and organize a mess of disparate bank accounts, insurance policies and brokerage accounts.  You can store the documents with your attorney, a safe-deposit box, online data storage or keep them at home in a fireproof safe that someone else knows the combination to.

The Essentials

  • The Will – An original will is the most important document to keep on file.  A will allows you to dictate who inherits your assets and, if your children are underage, their guardians. Dying without a will means losing control of how your assets are distributed, instead, state law will determine what happens. Wills are subject to probate; legal proceedings that take inventory, make appraisals of property, settle outstanding debt and distribute remaining assets. Not having an original document means family members can challenge a copy of a will in court.
  • Revocable living trust – Increasingly recommended by estate planners because they are more private and harder to dispute.  A revocable living trust is flexible and can be changed anytime during your lifetime. After you transfer ownership of various assets to the trust, you can serve as the trustee on behalf of beneficiaries you designate.
  • “Letter of instruction”  – A useful supplement to a will, though it doesn’t hold legal weight. It is a good way to make sure your executor has the names and contact information of your attorneys, accountants and financial advisers. While the will should be stored with your attorney, the letter of instruction should be more readily accessible.
  • Health Care Proxy – Possibly the most important advance directive to complete. This allows your designee to make health-care decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated. The document should be compliant with federal health-information privacy laws, so that doctors, hospitals and insurance companies can speak with your designee. You may also need to fill out an Authorization to Release Protected Healthcare Information form as well.  If you are incapacitated and your family can’t locate a health-care power of attorney, they will have to go to court to get a guardian appointed.
  • Living Will – Sometimes it isn’t enough to establish a health-care proxy unless you have explained to your designee how you would like to be treated in case of incapacity. A living will details your wishes in print.
  • DNR or “Do Not Resuscitate” order – Very sick or terminally ill patients may wish to have a document outlining their wishes in the face of long term/indefinite life support assistance, thereby removing the responsibility from their doctor or family members.
  • Durable Power of Attorney is critical, allowing a designee to make legal decisions on your behalf in the event that you are incapacitated.

* AARP has a state-by-state listing of advance-directive forms on its website.

* Advance Choice Inc.’s DocuBank electronically stores copies of health-care documents for a fee. In case of an emergency, a hospital will contact DocuBank, which will fax over the information. Subscribers get a wallet sized ID card.

Proof of Ownership

  • You should keep documentation of housing and land ownership, cemetery plots, vehicles, stock certificates and savings bonds; any partnership or corporate operating agreements; and a list of brokerage and escrow mortgage accounts. If you don’t tell your family that you own such assets, there is a chance they never will find out. Don’t leave them to perform their own detective work; watching the mail for real-estate tax bills, or combing bank accounts for interest payments.
  • File any documents that list loans you have made to others, since they could be included as assets in an estate. Similarly, keep a list of any debts you owe to avoid surprising your family. Wills and living trusts generally are drafted to include provisions for how debts should be settled, and creditors have a stipulated period of time in which to file a claim against the estate.
  • Make the most recent three years of tax returns available, too. Looking at prior year’s returns offers a snapshot of what assets heirs should be looking for.  This also will help your personal representative file a final income-tax and estate return and, if necessary, a revocable-trust return.

Bank Accounts & Safe Deposit Boxes

  • A list of all accounts and online log-in information with your family so they can notify the bank of your death. Remember that if nobody ever takes any more out or puts money in, the account could become dormant and then becomes the property of the state.
  • Any safe-deposit boxes you own – Register your spouse or child’s name with the bank and ask them to sign the registration document so they can have access without securing a court order.

Life Insurance and Retirement Accounts

  • Copies of life-insurance policies are among the most important documents for your family to have. Family members need to know the name of the carrier, the policy number and the agent associated with the policy.
  • Employer sponsored life-insurance policies, granted by an employer upon your retirement, are most often missed.  New York state alone is holding more than $400 million in life-insurance-related payments that have gone unclaimed since 2000, according to the state comptroller’s office.
  • A list of pensions, annuities, IRAs and 401(k)s for your spouse and children. Tens of millions of dollars languish in unclaimed IRAs every year according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.

Marriage and Divorce

  • Ensure someone knows where you have stored your marriage license. If the document cannot be located, application may have to be made to prove the marriage validity before anything could be claimed.
  • For those that are divorced, it is important to leave behind the divorce judgment and decree or, if the case was settled without going to court, the stipulation agreement. These documents lay out child support, alimony and property settlements, and also may list the division of investment and retirement accounts.
  • Include the distribution sheet listing bank-account numbers that accompanied the settlement to avoid disputes about ownership or payments due. Also include a copy of the most recent child-support payment order. In the majority of states, the obligation to pay child support still exists after death.
  • You also should include a copy of the “qualified domestic-relations order,” which can prove your spouse received a share of your retirement accounts.

No matter what your net worth is, it’s important to have these basic elements of an estate plan in place to ensure that your family and financial goals are met after you die. Let your legacy be good planning for your loved ones!

The information herein contained does not constitute legal advice. Any decisions or actions should not be made without first consulting an attorney.

For more information contact us at 845.563.0537 or

The author of this blog, Steven M DiGregorio is President of Compass Asset Management Group, LLC and an Investment Advisor Representative with Spire Wealth Management, LLC.

Spire Wealth Management, LLC is a Federally Registered Investment Advisory Firm. Securities offered through an affiliate, Spire Securities, LLC. Member FINRA/SIPC.

Tags: AARP, advance directive, Divorce Planning, dnr, DocuBank, estate, estate plan, health care proxy, insurance, intestate, living trust, living will, policy, power of attorney, probate, Trust, will

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STEVEN M DIGREGORIO is President of Compass Asset Management Group, LLC and an Investment Advisor Representative with Spire Wealth Management, LLC.
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