The essential estate planning checklist

Do you know what happens to your assets after you die? If you do not have a will, do you realize that your state will dictate how your wealth will be distributed – which might not align with your desires? To keep control of your estate, it is imperative you take steps now to establish a will and other estate planning documents.

Here is an estate planning checklist that contains what you need to discuss with your attorney to make sure your estate’s assets will end up with the beneficiaries you want - without potential hassles, undue costs, and a trip to probate court.

Estate Planning Checklist Items

Ensure you have your key documents in place. The more affluent you are, the more complicated your estate planning will likely be. That said, most people need some combination of these essential estate planning documents:

  • Will
  • Living trust
  • Durable powers of attorney, including a health care proxy
  • Advance health care directives


Most people are familiar with a will, which designates where most of your assets will go after your death. With a will, you can also designate a guardian for minor children and appoint an executor to administer your estate after your passing.

What you might not realize is that assets that already have beneficiary designations will pass to heirs independently of how they are identified in your will. For example, homes and other real estate can be passed directly to a co-owner through what’s called “joint tenancy with right of survivorship” or “tenancy by entirety.”

In addition, retirement plans, such as Individual Retirement Accounts, 401(k)s, annuities, and life insurance, should already have designated beneficiaries that you selected when you created the accounts. These estate assets will transfer to those beneficiaries without needing a will.

It’s extremely important that you review all the beneficiary designations on these accounts regularly to make sure that they still reflect your desires. For instance, an IRA created years ago may have your ex-spouse as the primary beneficiary. Or you might want to name adult children as contingent beneficiaries. If you need to make changes, it’s typically easy to update beneficiaries online or with a simple form.

Living Trust

In addition to a will, consider creating a living trust, which is a document that allows an estate to pass its assets directly to your beneficiaries instead of going through probate court. The avoidance of probate, which can be expensive, is the living trust’s biggest selling point. Probate records are also public, so using a living trust can ensure your family’s privacy.

Durable Power Of Attorney

With a durable power of attorney, you choose who you’d like to act on your behalf if you can no longer make decisions. Typically, you create two durable powers of attorney: one for finances and one for health care. The financial power of attorney allows someone to pay your bills and handle other financial matters. The health care power of attorney (also called a health care proxy) allows someone to make decisions about your medical care. It can be helpful to have the same person hold both powers of attorney, but you should talk to your estate planning attorney about what’s best for you.

Advance Health Care Directives

In the event of a critical health situation, you need to give a trusted person as much guidance as possible about what kind of medical treatment you do or do not wish to have. You can do this by creating an advance health care directive.

Storing Your Documents

Keep a hard copy of your will and other important estate documents, including your living trust, financial durable power of attorney, health care proxy, and advance health care directives, in a secure place and let the people who need access to them, such as an executor, trustees, or close family members, know where they are. 

Key advisors, including your estate planning attorney and financial advisor, may also keep copies of these documents on file for you. Ensure your close family members have contact information for your advisory team. Your advisory team should also have clear instructions about who to contact if you are unavailable or incapacitated.

A little planning goes a long way in difficult times. The greatest gift you can give your family and friends is to ensure that they know your wishes and what to do if you are unable to act for yourself.


Dowling & Yahnke is a fee‐only registered investment adviser. Since 1991, Dowling & Yahnke has provided time-tested, objective financial planning advice and investment management services designed for the financial health and personal freedom of its clients. Located in San Diego, California, the Firm manages approximately $5.7 billion for more than 1,300 clients, primarily individuals, families, and nonprofit organizations.

Our team consists of highly-educated, experienced, and ethical professionals devoted to the highest standards of client service. We design custom wealth management solutions delivered with the highest level of personalized service.


This information is for educational purposes and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied upon for, accounting, legal, tax, insurance, or investment advice. This does not constitute an offer to provide any services, nor a solicitation to purchase securities. The contents are not intended to be advice tailored to any particular person or situation. We believe the information provided is accurate and reliable, but do not warrant it as to completeness or accuracy. This information may include opinions or forecasts, including investment strategies and economic and market conditions; however, there is no guarantee that such opinions or forecasts will prove to be correct, and they also may change without notice. We encourage you to speak with a qualified professional regarding your scenario and the then-current applicable laws and rules.

Different types of investments involve degrees of risk. Future performance of any investment or wealth management strategy, including those recommended by us, may not be profitable, suitable, or prove successful. Past performance is not indicative of future results. One cannot invest directly in an index or benchmark, and those do not reflect the deduction of various fees which would diminish results. Any index or benchmark performance figures are for comparison purposes only, and client account holdings will not directly correspond to any such data.

Advisory services are offered through CI Private Wealth and its affiliates, each being a registered investment adviser (“RIA”) regulated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). The advisory services are only offered in jurisdictions where the RIA is appropriately registered. The use of the term “registered” does not imply any particular level of skill or training and does not imply any approval by the SEC. For a complete discussion of the scope of advisory services offered, fees, and other disclosures, please review the RIA’s Disclosure Brochure (Form ADV Part 2A) and Form CRS, available upon request to the RIA and online at We also encourage you to review the RIA’s Privacy Policy and Code of Ethics, which are available upon request.

Our clients must, in writing, advise us of personal, financial, or investment objective changes and any restrictions desired on our services so that we may re-evaluate any previous recommendations and adjust our advisory services as needed. For current clients, please advise us immediately if you are not receiving monthly account statements from your custodian. We encourage you to compare your custodial statements to any information we provide to you.