We’ve moved! We didn’t go far and look forward to seeing you in our new space located at 1255 Crescent Green Drive, Suite 200, Cary, NC 27518

The Ultimate Estate Planning Checklist for Every Age and Stage of Life

Talking about estate planning isn’t exactly a light conversation starter. Thinking about our own mortality and what happens after we’re gone can feel pretty morbid. But here’s the thing: Having an estate plan in place isn’t just about preparing for the inevitable end. It’s about protecting your loved ones, your assets, and your values during your lifetime, too.

At Cary Estate Planning, we understand that proper estate planning isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. Your plan should evolve and adapt as your life circumstances change over the years. That’s why we’ve created this comprehensive estate planning checklist – to help ensure you’ve got all your bases covered at every age and stage.

Why Do I Need an Estate Plan?

An estate plan does so much more than just determine who gets your stuff when you die (but yes, it does that, too). Here are a few key reasons why getting your affairs in order should be a top priority:

  • Ensure your wishes are carried out regarding the distribution of your assets, healthcare decisions, and end-of-life preferences. Without documented instructions, the state could end up making those calls for you.
  • Appoint guardians to care for your minor children if the unthinkable happens to you. Proper guardianship plans can help avoid lengthy court battles.
  • Minimize your estate’s exposure to taxes and avoid the costly complexities of the probate process. Estates valued over $5.49 million in North Carolina are subject to state inheritance taxes.
  • Provide for loved ones with special needs without disrupting their eligibility for government benefits and resources.
  • Give a trusted person legal authority to act on your behalf and make decisions if you ever become incapacitated and unable to manage your own affairs.

Having a solid plan gives you power over these big “what ifs” in life. You get to make the calls about how your legacy plays out, not the courts or the state.

What Should My Estate Planning Checklist Include?

Basic Estate Planning Documents

No matter your age or net worth, some basic estate planning documents are universal must-haves:

  • Last Will and Testament: This legal document designates your heirs, names guardians for minor children, and outlines how your assets should be distributed after you’re gone.
  • Living Trust: Unlike a will that just kicks in after death, a living trust allows you to easily manage and distribute assets during your lifetime too. It’s a great way to avoid the time and costs of probate.
  • Power of Attorney Documents: A durable financial power of attorney lets a chosen person handle your finances and assets if you can’t. A medical POA names an advocate to make healthcare decisions according to your wishes if you’re incapacitated.
  • Beneficiary Designations: You’ll want to ensure beneficiaries are properly assigned for retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and other financial accounts.

Other Important Estate Planning Considerations

While those core documents are foundational, your comprehensive estate plan could require additional components, like:

  • Making a detailed list of all your assets, from real estate to bank accounts to digital assets like cryptocurrency
  • Updating beneficiary designations as life circumstances (marriage, divorce, births, deaths) evolve
  • Considering setting up a living trust to manage and distribute assets in accordance with your wishes during life and after death
  • Reviewing and revising your plan regularly – we recommend every 3-5 years or after any major life event like a wedding or a new grandchild.
  • Enlisting the guidance of an experienced North Carolina estate planning attorney to ensure all your documents are valid, comprehensive, and in line with current state laws

Estate planning is a process, not a one-and-done event. But having that checklist of the essentials can help ensure you don’t let any critical elements fall through the cracks.

Estate Planning by Age and Life Stage

Your estate planning needs – and the necessary components of your plan – tend to shift as you navigate different phases of life.

Young Adults (18-35)

For young adults just getting started on their financial journey, estate planning documents may seem premature. But we actually advise clients to get basic affairs in order early on, including:

  • A basic will to designate heirs (like parents or siblings) and guardians for any minor children
  • Durable power of attorney documents in case you need someone to make financial or medical decisions on your behalf
  • Beneficiary designations for any retirement accounts or life insurance policies you may already have through an employer

Think of it as a solid foundation you can build on over time. Getting these simple documents drafted while you’re young ensures nothing falls through the cracks as your assets grow.

Mid-Career (35-55)

For many people in this age group, there have usually been some major life and financial milestones by this point: getting married, buying homes, having kids, and acquiring substantial assets. Your estate planning checklist should reflect these shifts, like:

  • Reviewing and updating any basic will or trust documents you created earlier in adulthood
  • Considering setting up a living trust if you haven’t already done so, which can make asset management and eventual distribution easier
  • Ensuring proper planning is in place, should you become incapacitated – things like disability insurance and healthcare power of attorney
  • Making arrangements for long-term care and end-of-life medical decisions as you and your spouse get older

As you hit those mid-career years and your net worth hopefully grows, now is the time to make sure your estate plan grows in parallel.

Retirement (55+)

For those heading into their golden years or already enjoying retirement, estate planning becomes increasingly vital:

  • Update beneficiary designations as you start withdrawing funds from retirement accounts – you may want different percentages going to different heirs
  • Review the potential estate tax implications for your accumulated wealth and plan distribution strategies accordingly
  • Establish trusts and take other protective measures to ensure your hard-earned assets are distributed according to your wishes.
  • Consider setting up a special needs trust to provide for a child with disabilities without disrupting their eligibility for government aid.

With your full financial picture clear by this stage of life, retirement gives you the chance to craft a true legacy plan that protects what you’ve built.

Frequently Asked Estate Planning Questions

Over the years, we’ve fielded every estate planning question under the sun from concerned clients just like you. But a few common themes keep popping up:

“What happens if I don’t have a will?”

If you pass away without a will under North Carolina’s intestacy laws, the state will determine how your assets get divided up – which may not align with your desires. A will allows you to make those choices.

“How can I avoid probate?”

Probate, the legal process of reviewing and transferring assets after death, can be costly and time-consuming. But setting up a revocable living trust is one way to sidestep probate and ensure a smoother transfer of wealth.

“What’s the difference between a will and a living trust?”

A will only governs what happens to your stuff after you die. A living trust, on the other hand, lets you put your assets into a trust that you maintain control over during life, avoiding probate down the road.

“When should I hire an estate planning attorney?”

Any time your life situation becomes more complex than just needing basic documents, it’s wise to get professional legal counsel. Bringing a new child into the family, inheritances, owning a business, facing a divorce – all are good prompts to consult an attorney.

Work With an Experienced Estate Attorney

We get it – preparing for life’s “what ifs” with an estate plan can feel daunting and more than a little morbid. But think of it this way: Proper planning is how you maintain control over your legacy and protect what matters most.

At Cary Estate Planning, our seasoned team has walked hundreds of North Carolinians through this process, de-mystifying every step. We take the time to understand your unique circumstances, family dynamics, and wealth goals. From there, we can develop an estate plan tailored to your specific needs – one that covers all the essentials while positioning you for probate avoidance, tax efficiency, and asset protection.

We know life moves quickly, which is why we make it our mission to keep your estate plan up-to-date as circumstances inevitably change through the years. Because having a stale, outdated plan can sometimes be worse than having no plan at all. Working with a professional you can build a lasting relationship with means your affairs can stay in order for decades.

If you’re ready to get started crossing “create an estate plan” off your lifelong to-do list, we’re here to guide you. Reach out to Cary Estate Planning today and schedule a consultation with our team. Together, we can build a rock-solid plan that allows you to protect your legacy while you’re still around to enjoy it.

Author Bio

Paul Yokabitus

Paul Yokabitus is the CEO and Managing Partner of Cary Estate Planning, a Cary, NC, estate planning law firm. With years of experience in estate and elder law, he has zealously represented clients in various legal matters, including estate planning, guardianship, Medicaid planning, estate administration, and other cases.

Paul received his Juris Doctor from the Campbell University School of Law and is a North Carolina Bar Association member. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including being named among the “Best Attorney in Cary” in 2016 and 2017 by Cary News and Rising Star in 2020-2023 by Super Lawyers.

LinkedIn | State Bar Association | Avvo | Google