Estate planning isn’t always easy. There are many considerations, no matter how much money you have or how old you may be. That’s why we believe the best way to succeed at estate planning is to start with the basics. These ten keys to proper estate planning may not be all your ideal estate plan needs to best protect your loved ones in case anything ever happens to you, but they will give you the basics to get you started right.


  1. Catalogue your assets. It’s impossible to plan for all your vital assets unless you know what those assets are. By listing all assets, even those you may not believe are important, you can ensure an easier probate or trust administration for your family.
  2. Record access information for all digital assets. Not having the login information for digital assets, such as bank, brokerage, and credit card accounts, makes it much more difficult for beneficiaries to access these when they need to. All estate planning documents should include a list of login information for relevant accounts that is updated regularly. You even should address what to do with social media profiles and email accounts to ensure that your wishes are followed and that your legacy is protected.
  3. Update all beneficiary designations. If you have life insurance, annuities, or retirement plans, these assets skip probate and are not controlled by your will or trust. Instead they automatically transfer to a named beneficiary upon your death. This should be regularly updated as your family changes.
  4. Draw up an advanced healthcare directive. If you are incapacitated and cannot communicate your wishes to family members, an advanced healthcare directive can convey your wishes. This makes life decisions easier on loved ones who know that your true intent is being respected. Make sure that your healthcare directive follows unique California formatting.
  5. Designate power of attorney in case you become incapacitated. Your power of attorney dictates who can make financial decisions on your behalf. It can even set up limits on how those decisions can be carried out, keeping you in better control of what can happen.
  6. Fill out a HIPAA release form for all people named in your advanced healthcare directive and your power of attorney. The release allows people involved in decisions related to your health to access vital health records and information that would otherwise be protected by privacy laws, so all decisions are fully informed by the facts.
  7. Draft a will for general distribution of assets. A will can be used determine who will be given your assets after your death. It is important to keep in mind that any assets passed on using a will are subject to California probate. It is also possible to provide for distribution of assets through a trust, but that is a topic for another day.
  8. Write a letter of intent for special assets. In case you want special attention or care given to the way particular assets are passed on to beneficiaries, a letter of intent conveys your wishes to the executor. A letter of intent can also be used to provide for the details of your funeral or make other special requests.
  9. Make a notification list to be kept with your will. While everyone named as a beneficiary in your will is automatically informed of your death by the executor, a notification list allows you to designate specific people or institutions to be notified of your passing.
  10. Designate a guardian. If you have minor or handicapped children who need a guardian, you must be sure to include a designation of a responsible guardian (and suitable alternates) in your will.


These ten key estate planning steps cannot be overlooked. Remember, it’s ideal to do estate planning before you even suspect you may need it. After all, estate planning is best carried out calmly and deliberately–and unfortunately, you never know when you may need it.

Of course, these steps alone aren’t nearly enough for most families. Living trusts and other estate planning instruments can do a much better job at protecting your family and friends from the costs and stress of probate. These complicated legal instruments require high-level expertise from an experienced probate attorney. You can call Michael Larsen at 707-578-2310 to discuss this further.