Estate Planning Guide
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9 key estate-planning tools

3. Durable power of attorney

A durable power of attorney allows a person you designate to access and control your financial assets. It can take effect immediately, or it can "spring" into effect if an event you define triggers its operation, such as incapacitation or unavailability.

4. Prenuptial agreement

"I advise my clients that if they have significant personal assets," says Spiegelman, "it's really important to keep them separate from their spouse's." That's especially important if you've been married before. "A prenup is essential in a second marriage," says Vose, "and you can blame the fact that you're asking for it on the nasty lawyer."

5. Health care proxy

Also called a durable power of attorney for health care, this document identifies the person you'd like to make medical decisions on your behalf if you become unable to make them yourself.

6. Living will

Through a living will, you tell people what you want done if you need life-sustaining medical treatment. "Many states have statutorily promulgated living wills," says Vose, "so that if you grab a copy from your local courthouse and check a few boxes, that's going to be enforced."

7. HIPAA release

A Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, release allows medical professionals to discuss your medical condition with your personal representative. "Federal law imposes privacy requirements on health professionals," says Vose. "Some hospitals enforce them, and others don't. And sometimes even if you're designated under someone's health care power of attorney, medical professionals won't disclose information to you because you're not designated as that person's HIPAA representative."

Vose also suggests enrolling in the $45-per-year Docubank, which he does for all his clients. "You send copies of all your health care documents to Docubank. You get a card that you put in your wallet next to your health insurance card. Then medical professionals can punch in your ID number on a phone system, and your documents will come spitting out of the fax machine. That allows them to find someone who will be in charge of your emergency medical care."

8. Life insurance

"To protect your family if you're a breadwinner, definitely consider life insurance," says Dadakis. "If you don't have financial responsibilities to others, you don't need life insurance."

9. A business succession plan

"Estate planning for business owners is significantly different than for people who don't own a business," says Mina Sirkin, founder of Sirkin & Sirkin in Woodland Hills, Calif. "Let's say I'm a business owner, and I have a child in the business and other children who don't work in the business. I'll probably want to create a transfer arrangement to the child who works in the business and compensate the children who don't work in the business to make sure they're not left out. Also, if I have a trust, I want to make sure my trust provisions agree with my succession plan."

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