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3 steps to building your estate plan online or with an attorney

Key takeaways

  • If you do not have complex planning needs, a basic estate plan can be completed online in 1 to 3 hours and cost less than $1,000.
  • Consider other documents that can help round out your estate plan: an advance health care directive, a power of attorney for finances, and a health care proxy.
  • A financial professional can help you take inventory of your assets and work with your attorney so that your estate plan reflects changes in your financial situation over time.

Everyone should consider having a will. Otherwise, your wishes may not be carried out and your assets will be distributed according to the laws of your state in which you reside upon your passing.

Some people procrastinate because they fear the process is going to be long, painful, and costly. But it is now possible to go online to create a basic will—the most common element of any estate plan—in a few hours and for less than the cost of a traditional estate planning attorney.

Of course, going digital isn't right for everyone. If you have questions about your estate planning options or have a complex estate, you'll want to work with an estate planning attorney. But even then, getting yourself organized online first (like listing your assets, power of attorney, and beneficiaries) can save you time and money.

"An online service can give you time to consider important family and financial factors that can impact your legacy goals without the worry of a hourly cost of an attorney,” says Jennifer Waugh, Fidelity's vice president of advanced planning. "Those without complex planning needs can typically complete an estate plan online within a few hours at a fraction of the cost."

The costs of creating an estate plan with an attorney or online will vary based on the complexity of your plan and the state in which you reside, among other factors. Regardless of whether you intend to create your estate plan online, you may still want to meet with an attorney to consider what is appropriate for you in light of your particular situation. But the more prepared you are, the more efficient and less expensive the process may be when you actually create your estate plan, online or with an attorney.

To help you get started, we've outlined 3 key steps to create an estate plan.

1. Prepare: Get organized

Start by thinking about the people you want to include in your estate plan. If you have a blended family, take care to record a detailed family tree highlighting each individual and their relationship to you. Then, ask a trusted family member or friend to consider serving as your executor.

Next, document what you own (your assets) and what you owe (your liabilities). This can help you get a more complete picture of your financial situation to determine how complicated your estate is and what type of estate planning needs to be done.

Lastly, think about how you'd like some important issues to play out:

  • Who do you want to have legal authority to distribute your assets?
  • Do you want assets left to your spouse to be held in trust?
  • Do you want your children to receive everything you own equally?
  • Is there a specific asset that you want to give to a specific beneficiary?
  • Who do you want as guardian of your minor children?
  • Are there any special arrangements needed for the care of pets?
  • Would you like to include instructions about your final resting place?
  • Do you plan to leave money to any charities?

2. Create: Go online or work with a professional to build your plan

Once you know what you want to accomplish, it's time to answer a number of important questions (either online or at your attorney's office) to complete the necessary estate planning documents. Remember, an estate plan should be designed to protect both your health and your wealth, so make sure you cover the basics—specifically, a "last will and testament."

However, there are other documents that can help round out your estate plan, including an advance health care directive (such as a do-not-resuscitate), a power of attorney for finances, and a health care proxy. You can also specify your wishes for organ donations and create your own "letter to your heirs" to carry on your legacy for generations to come.

For some people, a trust is another consideration. Consult your attorney about creating a living trust that can allow you to transfer title to your property from your name to a trust—while you are still alive.

If you have your own attorney, make sure to get clarity on fixed fees versus hourly rates and how you'll be informed of the status of your plan as your attorney goes through the drafting process.

If you decide to work with an online service provider, determine if your situation is straightforward enough so it can be handled online. Understand the costs up front and find out if you can directly ask an attorney questions, if needed.

"Clients should assess their planning needs to determine whether an online service or an estate planning attorney is best suited," says Waugh. "Generally, if your assets are more than $1 million or have a complex planning needs, you may be better served by working with an estate planning attorney and tax professional to create your estate plan to ensure your financial and legacy goals are carried out." Complex situations which may merit the need to work directly with an estate planning attorney include:

  • Blended family
  • Special needs loved one
  • Business owner
  • Foreign beneficiary
  • Family inheritance
  • Unique tax situation
  • Change of residence

3. Implement: Complete your final tasks

As the planning process comes to a close, your online service provider or attorney should provide you with a list of "to do" items for you to complete your estate plan. The items can include things like retitling assets, opening accounts, or changing beneficiaries.

To make your plan "official," you'll need to sign, possibly in front of a notary depending on your state's requirements, and securely store your documents. Review, print, and sign your documents according to signing instructions provided by an attorney or online provider. Paper and electronic copies should be stored in a secure place.

Lastly, although much of this information is considered confidential, it's important to inform family members, loved ones, and also your financial professionals. Here are few things you can do:

  • Talk with your family about your goals and wishes. Let them know where you store your documents and consider providing them with copies.
  • Write down the names of your trusted financial professionals (including attorneys, CPAs, etc.) so your executor, trustee, and family members can contact them if necessary.
  • Send printed and electronic copies to everyone you have named (executor, power of attorney, trustee).

Finding the right kind of help

There are 3 paths to consider in creating your estate plan.

  1. Work with your existing attorney.
  2. Consider using the Fidelity Estate Planner®, a free online tool for Fidelity customers that you can use to collect and organize information for your estate plan. Through its "Find an Attorney" service, you can connect to professional legal resources that you'll need to create your estate plan.
  3. Work with an online service provider to create your online estate plan.

Once you've developed your estate plan, consider revisiting your estate plan every 3 to 5 years. If you are working with a financial professional, they can help you take inventory of your assets and work with your attorney so that your estate plan reflects changes in your financial situation over time.

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Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market or other conditions. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the speaker or author and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments or its affiliates. Fidelity does not assume any duty to update any of the information.

Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Fidelity cannot guarantee that the information herein is accurate, complete, or timely. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use, and disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific situation.

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