Eight Estate Planning Documents Every Adult Should Have
It can be a little daunting to figure out exactly what documents you should have as part of a comprehensive estate plan.  This list outlines the eight essential documents every adult should have.  

Will or Trust
A will or trust outlines how your assets are to be distributed when you die.  A will essentially distributes your property to heirs “outright.”  In other words, you do not have much authority to dictate any terms of  how the money is to be used once it is distributed.  A trust, on the other hand, puts your assets into an imaginary pot.  The assets are then distributed according to your instructions, and by a trustee who you appoint to oversee the trust.   

Disposition of Remains Document
This document gives instructions for how you want your remains handled upon your death.  For example, do you wish to be cremated or buried?  Where do you desire your final remains to be placed?  Some folks might think, "I'll just let the kids decide," not realizing how critical it is to give these instructions in advance.  I recently saw a case in which the decedent left no disposition instructions.  The surviving children could not agree about whether the deceased parent should be buried or cremated.  As a result, the estate incurred substantial costs as the decedent's body was held in the county morgue for weeks on end, while the children argued bitterly over the final disposition of the remains.  

General Durable Power of Attorney
A comprehensive estate plan contains much more than just a will or trust.  You also need documents that plan for an emergency in which you may not be able to make important choices on your own.  A general durable power of attorney (sometimes referred to as a financial power of attorney) allows you to appoint someone to act as your “agent,” and to make the financial decisions you would make, if you had the ability.  A financial power of attorney can go into effect as soon as you sign it.  Or it can be “springing,” which means it becomes effective upon the occurrence of a certain event—for example, when a doctor certifies you have become incapacitated.  Your financial power of attorney will terminate at death.  In other words, you cannot give your power of attorney authority to make any decisions for you after you have passed away.   

Health Care Power of Attorney
Who would step in to make important health decisions for you in the event you were incapacitated?  Through a health care power of attorney, you can appoint someone to do just that.  Your health care agent, or proxy, will make health care decisions for you and direct health care providers to give you the care you would wish to receive.   

HIPAA Release
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was created to protect the privacy of your health information.  It prohibits your health care providers from releasing your health care information unless you have given your provider a HIPAA release form.  It is important to include a HIPAA release form as part of your estate plan, since doctors may not be able to give your health care agent important health information without it.   The HIPAA release is sometimes combined with the Health Care Power of Attorney document.    

Living Will (also known as an Advance Directive)
Although this document is called a living “will,” it is actually nothing like a will at all.  It does not distribute any property when you die.  A better name for it might be a “what-I-want-done-when-I’m-about-to-die” document.  A living will details your health care preferences in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated.  This document becomes particularly relevant if you are facing end of life decisions and you are unable to speak for yourself.  It instructs doctors about your desires regarding the types of medical procedures and actions that should or should not be taken in the event of imminent death.  

Designation of Guardian
Perhaps the most important document any parent of minor children can have in his/her estate plan is the Designation of Guardian.  This designation is usually found within your will or power of attorney document.  In some states it can also be a stand-alone document.  It appoints a guardian for your children in the event of your death or disability.  It can also express your opinions about people you do NOT want to be your child’s guardian.  If you have named a guardian, a judge will still need to appoint that person—but will usually go along with your choice.  If you are divorced, the other parent will generally be appointed as the guardian, however, the judge will consider any concerns you have expressed about his/her parenting abilities.       

Digital Diary
The digital diary is a new and oft-overlooked part of the estate plan.  It is a list of passwords necessary to access your digital documents, photos, financial information, or any other digital assets you may have stored on the cloud or on a password protected computer.   Without a digital diary, your loved ones will not be able to access your digital information.  Important keep sakes like photos and videos could be lost forever.  It’s very important to take the time to list all your digital passwords, file it with your estate planning documents, and then be sure to update it regularly.