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Estate Planning Checklist

Written by: A. Hollyn Scott, Esq. , Contributing Author
Reviewed by: Catherine Hodder, Esq. , Senior Legal Writer
Last updated March 06, 2024

Still not sure what estate planning tools you need?

Creating an estate plan starts with many questions. Learn about what information you need and what questions to answer when starting your estate plan.

Table of Contents

Estate Planning Questions

You can create an estate plan with do-it-yourself forms for most simple estates. In other more complex cases, you may need to seek the counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney. Either way, you can expect questions from an attorney or during your online form process.

These types of questions can feel intrusive. However, remember that the more complete the information, the better equipped you’ll be throughout the planning process.

Your information helps to create your estate plan, so be as accurate and detailed as possible. You must understand your assets and your family’s needs to create the best possible estate plan

If you are uncertain about the exact information, be honest that you are unsure and give your best assessment. Try to give as much detailed information as possible.

Personal and Family Information

State the names requested below exactly as you want them to appear in your last will and testament and other estate planning documents.

  • Your full name and date of birth
  • Spouse’s name and date of birth
  • Home address
  • Phone number, email address, and other contact information
  • Are you a United States citizen? If not, of what country are you a citizen?
  • Is your spouse a citizen of the United States? If not, in what country are they a citizen?

Previous Marriages

  • State the name of each prior spouse
  • Are any ex-spouses still living?
  • If either you or your spouse are divorced, be prepared to attach a copy of the divorce decree


  • Your children’s names and dates of birth
  • Your children’s spouses and dates of birth
  • Your children’s children and dates of birth
  • Is there any reason to treat your children unequally?
  • Are any of the children financially irresponsible?
  • Are any of the children under special needs or disability support?
  • Should any child predecease you, do you want their share to go to their children (your grandchildren), or do you want their share to go to your other living children?


Which of your children is your child but not your spouse’s (Or vice versa)?

Adopted Children

List the date and place of adoption of any adopted child.

Deceased Children

  • List any deceased child and the date of the child’s birth and death (and their surviving spouse and children if applicable)
  • For any deceased children, specify if the child is from a prior marriage, adopted, etc.)
  • Does this child have a spouse?
  • Does this child have any children?

Financial Assets

The following questions do not require detailed responses. For example, shares in publicly traded companies might be shown simply as “common stocks.”

On the other hand, greater detail will be helpful for property interests that are more or less unique, such as interests in real estate.

Do you have a financial planner, investment advisor, or insurance agent? Be sure to know their contact information.

Asset Ownership

You may use the following abbreviations to describe certain attributes of particular assets:

  • JT = Joint tenancy with right of survivorship
  • TE = Tenancy by the entirety
  • TC = Tenancy in common
  • H = Husband’s name alone (some forms are moving away from gendered spousal terms)
  • W = Wife’s name alone (some forms are moving away from gendered spousal terms)
  • LT = Land trust
  • FMV = Fair market value (or your best estimate)
  • CV = Cash value of life insurance policy
  • PV = Proceeds of life insurance policy

Real Estate Property

You need to know all real estate locations with a complete address. It would be best if you also listed the following:

  • Who owns the property (what names are on the title)
  • The character of the property, e.g., residence, shopping center, apartment house, or similar description
  • Personal residence address
  • Description (e.g., single family, condo, or co-op, similar description)
  • How do you hold the title?
  • Fair market value?
  • Mortgage balance?
  • Do you have mortgage life insurance?

Additional Real Estate

  • Other personal residences or vacation home addresses
  • Description (e.g., single family, condo, or co-op, similar description)
  • How do you hold the title?
  • Fair market value?
  • Mortgage balance?
  • Mortgage life insurance?

Community Property

You need to know if you now live in or have lived in a community property state if you own real estate in one of these states. Indicate the state and whether you and your spouse have a legal agreement on whether that property is separate property.

Personal and Household Effects

Please provide additional detail if the general categories do not adequately describe your property.

Also, be sure to state your best estimate of the value of each kind of property and who owns it (how you hold the title):

  • Automobiles
  • General personal and household effects such as furniture, furnishings, books, and pictures of no particular value
  • Valuable jewelry (indicate if insured)
  • Valuable works of art (mark if insured)
  • Valuable antiques (mark if insured)
  • Other valuable collections, e.g., coins, stamps, or gold (indicate if insured)
  • Other tangible personal property (not covered above)

Cash, Cash Deposits, and Cash Equivalents

State the name and address of each bank or institution and who owns each item:

  • Bank accounts, including checking and money market accounts
  • Spouses’ checking accounts (if held jointly)
  • Ordinary savings accounts
  • Certificates of deposit
  • Short-term U.S. obligations (T-bills)
  • Pension & profit-sharing plans, retirement plans, Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) annuities, ESOPs, or other tax-favored employee benefit plans
  • Pension plans vested and current value
  • Profit-sharing plans vested and current value
  • Social security benefits

Life Insurance

  • Name of life insurance company
  • Ordinary life insurance
  • The face value of policies (proceeds)
  • If you do not own it, who does?
  • Beneficiaries for life insurance
  • Cash value
  • Loans against life insurance
  • Amount of accidental death benefits (if any)

Term/Group Term Insurance

  • The face value of policies (proceeds)
  • Owner other than you
  • Beneficiaries
  • Accidental death benefits

Please supply similar information for other life insurance or other insurance having life insurance features.

Life Insurance on Your Spouse’s Life

  • The face amount of ordinary life insurance
  • Policy owner other than a spouse
  • Beneficiaries
  • Cash value
  • Loans (if any)

Closely Held Business Interests

Describe any interest you have in a family or other business with limited shareholders:

  • The nature of the business
  • Form of the organization (e.g., corporation, partnership, or the like)
  • Are you active in its operations?
  • Estimate of its value
  • If it is a corporation, indicate whether an “S election” is in force for the federal taxation of the corporation
  • Do you believe the business would continue to operate successfully after your permanent absence (or the permanent absence of some other key person)?
  • Is there a buy-sell agreement in place with any partners or other entities?

Investment Assets

For each category, please state the owner (who holds the title) and the approximate value:

  • Brokerage accounts
  • Publicly traded stocks and corporate investments
  • Municipal bonds
  • Long-term U.S. Treasury Notes and bonds
  • Limited partnership interests
  • Describe the general nature and value of other investment interests
  • Other interests of current or future value

Safe Deposit Box

  • Do you have a safe deposit box? If so, where?
  • Does anyone else have access to your box?
  • What assets are in your safe deposit box?

Interests in Trusts

Describe any trusts created by you or any other person, such as a parent or ancestor. A trust is an account in which you or a member of your immediate family has a right to receive distributions of income or principal.

Be as specific as you can. If possible, submit a copy of the trust agreement. If the trust agreement is not available, you should show the following:

  • The trust’s creation date
  • Whether it can be amended or changed
  • Whether someone has a power of appointment over it
  • When the trust terminates
  • Who will receive the trust property upon termination
  • State the approximate current value of the trust and the annual income from it

Anticipated Inheritances

You need to know if you or any other immediate family members will likely receive substantial inheritances in the foreseeable future. Such inheritances could be from persons other than yourself or your spouse.

Describe your best estimate of the value and the nature of each inheritance

Other Assets or Interests of Value

For anything that doesn’t fit in any categories above, please describe:

  • The general nature of the asset
  • The form of ownership
  • Your estimate of the value


You will need to describe substantial financial liabilities not reflected in the asset information you have provided above.

If they are secured, indicate the nature of the security. Also, show any substantial contingent liabilities, such as personal guarantees you have made on obligations of a business, a family member, or any other person.

Indicate whether you have insured against any of these obligations in the event of your death. This also applies if the obligations don’t survive your death.

Personal Estate Planning Objectives

Consider the following questions as part of your planning:

  • Who do you want to manage your estate?
  • Who do you want to care for your minor children?
  • Who do you want to handle assets if you have a trust?
  • Do you want to give specific items or money to a beneficiary?

The Executor or Personal Representative

Your executor is responsible for winding up your affairs at your death. They will see that your assets are collected and deal with your creditors.

It is also their role to pay claims, expenses, estate, and inheritance taxes and then distribute your property to trustees or others you have named.

It is a task of limited duration, substantial responsibility, and much work. You will need to list the following:

  • Principal executor’s name and address
  • Backup executor’s name and address

Guardians for Minor Children

A court will appoint a guardian for minor children in the event of your death and/or your spouse’s death. If you have minor children, you may designate a guardian in your will. A guardian has physical and legal control over your children until they reach the age of eighteen.

You will need to list the following:

  • Guardian’s name and address
  • Backup guardian’s name and address

Listing a backup guardian is a good idea if your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve.


Your trustees are responsible for the long-range management of the property. You can decide what property and assets are held “in trust.” Any property in the trust should benefit the beneficiaries of the trusts you create.

Depending on the terms of the trust, there may be adverse tax consequences if a trustee has an interest or possible interest in the trust. Usually, if the trustee’s discretion is limited, those negative tax consequences are similarly limited.

A trustee can be a corporation (qualified to act) or an individual. You may choose to have co-trustees, one of which may or may not be a corporation.

Choose a trustee with integrity, mature judgment, fiscal responsibility, and good business and investment acumen.

If you wish to select co-trustees, choose them for how well their individual strengths complement each other.

Frequently, the same person(s) or corporation selected as executor(s) also serves as the trustee(s).

You will need to list the following:

  • Principal trustees’ names and addresses
  • Backup trustees (to act if one or more of the principal trustees cannot or will not act) names and addresses
  • Terms of distribution (When can the child inherit? For example, upon completing college or upon marriage)
  • Ages(s) for distribution to children from the trust (Ex.: 1/3 at age 21, 1/3 at age 25, 1/3 at age 30, etc.)

Some people choose a corporate trustee. Because corporate trustees must charge fees for their services, they may decline to accept small trusts. Their prices to administer a small trust may be disproportionately large if they are to cover their costs in handling the trust.

Specific Gifts (Also Called Bequests)

Do you wish to make a separate list of any specific bequests in your will? Typically, these are items of personal property you want to give to children or others.

The advantage of such a list is that you may change it without changing your will. You should also consider the following:

  • Do you want to give money or a personal item to someone?
  • Do you want to give money or a personal item to a charity?

Other Considerations

  • Is there other important personal information that might affect your estate plans? For example, does a family member have a serious long-term medical or physical problem (or disability) that will require special care or attention in the future? For example, a special needs trust?
  • How would you dispose of your estate at your death if there were no such thing as estate or inheritance taxes?
  • Would your spouse or children receive income from sources other than your estate? An example of this is a spouse continuing or resuming their career.
  • Describe any personal objectives you have for your family and your estate. Do these override possible adverse tax consequences arising from trying to achieve them?

Financial Power of Attorney

Have you given a financial power of attorney (POA) to your spouse, child, or any other person? A power of attorney authorizes them to generally act on your behalf or handle specific transactions.

If you have power of attorney documents, list the following:

  • POA’s name and address
  • The nature of the power (specific or general)
  • The authority granted to the agent
  • The effective date of the POA
  • The location of the POA

Health Care Power of Attorney

Have you signed a document authorizing another person (such as your spouse) to make health care decisions for you when you can’t?

If not, do you want to create a health care power of attorney?

For a health care power of attorney, you will need the following

  • Primary physician’s name and address
  • Name of person making your health care decisions (your agent)
  • Any special requests for medical care

Living Will or Advance Health Care Directive

Have you signed a document indicating your wishes concerning end-of-life health care? A living will applies when you cannot speak for yourself and face an end-stage terminal illness or are in a permanent vegetative state.

If not, do you want to create a living will?

For a living will, you need the following:

  • Primary physician’s name and address
  • Circumstances when you want or don’t want life-prolonging measures
  • What specific life-prolonging measures to take (or not take)
  • Do you have any special requests regarding funeral or burial instructions?
  • Do you want to donate organs?

Ready To Create Your Estate Plan? Get Started With DIY Estate Planning Tools Today

Planning your estate is one of the best things you can do for your loved ones. Without a will or other estate planning documents, your family may face additional hardships after your death. An estate plan is crucial to your family’s financial security should something happen to you.

The good news is that you can use FindLaw’s estate planning tools and forms to create your simple estate plan from the comfort of your home. Our DIY estate planning package has all the documents you need to create a personal estate plan. You can also purchase any of our forms individually.

If your estate is complex, you have a complicated family situation, or you still have questions, you may want to speak with a local estate planning attorney to get help with your estate planning.

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