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Many Americans don’t prepare for death or an incapacitating medical emergency, which often leads to situations in which financial, medical and custody decisions are made by others in ways that a person would not have wanted. If you haven’t created an estate plan, you should, even if you don’t have a spouse, children or many assets.

Preparing for an Accident or Illness
Medical power of attorney designates someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf if you become physically or mentally incapacitated. A living will, or advance directive, explains what you’d want to happen in various scenarios.

A living trust can authorize someone to handle specific assets placed in a trust if you become incapacitated. Durable power of attorney can let someone handle other financial matters on your behalf.

Planning for End of Life
A will directs distribution of your assets upon death and is handled in probate court. You’ll have to choose an executor, who can be a family member, friend or attorney, to carry out your wishes.

If you don’t have a will, assets will be distributed according to state law. If you’re married, assets will go to your spouse and/or your children from your marriage or a previous relationship. If you aren’t married and don’t have kids, your assets will go to your biological relatives, even if you have an unmarried life partner.

A living trust can allow your assets to pass directly to your heirs upon your death rather than going through probate court. If you have a pension, life insurance, or a bank, retirement, or brokerage account, designate beneficiaries so funds can skip probate and transfer directly to them if you die. If you own joint assets with another person, they may or may not be transferred automatically to that person upon your death, depending on the type of assets and state law.

If you have young children, appoint a guardian to raise them if both parents are deceased. Arrange to place life insurance and other assets in a trust, and appoint a responsible person to handle the money until the children become adults.

Keep Documents Updated and Secure
You should periodically review your estate plan based on changes in your circumstances, such as marriage, divorce or the birth of a child. In addition, someone you’ve designated as an heir or authorized to make decisions on your behalf may have died, married, or divorced, or your relationship with that person may have changed in a way that causes you to rethink your previous decisions. Keep your estate planning documents in a safe place at home or at your attorney’s office, and make sure your loved ones know how to access them.

Create a Plan
Estate planning is important for all adults since an accident or illness can strike at any time. If you haven’t made arrangements, think about what you would want to happen in various scenarios and talk to an estate planning professional to get the documents in order.

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