As a real estate professional who handles probate sales, I have seen first hand the difficult situation and lengthy process families have endured because they were not prepared with an estate plan. Simply stated, estate planning helps protect your family in the event that something bad happens to you. And yet, 55% of Americans do not have a last will, leaving them vulnerable to costly court fees and legal battles. Estate planning is one of the most important steps any person can take to make sure that their final property and health care wishes are honored, and that loved ones are provided for in their absence. A comprehensive estate plan can resolve a number of legal questions that arise whenever anyone dies: What is the state of their financial affairs? What real and personal property do they own? Who gets what? Does a personal guardian need to be appointed to care for minor children? How much tax will need to be paid in order to transfer property ownership? What funeral arrangements are appropriate?

Here is a list of items every estate plan should include:

Last Will and Testament: A legal document by which a person expresses their wishes as to how their property is to be distributed at death, and names one or more persons, the executor, to manage the estate until its final distribution.

Durable Power of Attorney: A legal document that gives another person full or limited legal authority to sign your name on your behalf in your absence. Valid through incapacity. Ends at death.

Health Care Surrogate: A legal document that lets you give someone else the authority to make health care decisions for you in the event you are unable to make them for yourself.

Living Will Declaration: A written document that details your desires regarding your medical treatment in circumstances in which you are no longer able to express informed consent, especially an advance directive.

Designation of Preneed Guardian: A legal document that states if you should you ever become incompetent so that a court needs to appoint a legal guardian for you, you wish for the court to appoint the persons you have designated.

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Here are four steps to be prepared: 

1. Be aware. Speak regularly with your attorney about how to protect your digital assets.

2. Take a digital inventory. At least once a year, make a list of all your online accounts and subscriptions.

3. Gather your passwords. Make a list of your current passwords and keep it in a safe place. Make sure your trustee knows where to find the list.

4. Be specific. It's essential that your durable power of attorney include specific provisions authorizing someone you trust to deal with your digital online accounts. Your will or revocable trust should have similar provisions to allow your loved ones to deal with those assets after your death.

Even though it'd predicated on incapacitation or death, estate planning doesn't have to be morbid. In fact, it can actually be life-affirming, because the process will allow you to take a closer look at the people you care about in life and ensure their future happiness.

Article Courtesy Diana Fairbanks