This may sound harsh, but you need to do more for your family than just sign a will.

You should also leave them a map to follow.

How do you go about it?

  1. Prepare your executor.  You should have a list of all of your beneficiaries and professional advisors with their contact information.
  2. Tell your executor where you keep your original will.
  3. Tell your successor trustees where you keep your original trust.
  4. Keep your powers of attorney and medical directives handy.
  5. Update the beneficiary forms on your accounts.
  6. Destroy all of your previous wills, powers of attorney and advance directives.  Otherwise, they will just cause confusion and possibly inspire a dispute.
  7. Prepare a list of your financial accounts.
  8. Make life simple:  close or consolidate your small accounts.  If any of them are traditional IRAs, remember that the transfers should be trustee- to- trustee so you don’t have to pay taxes.
  9. Prepare a list of your passwords and digital assets.
  10. Toss anything in your house that would be really, really embarrassing if it came to light.  Or criminal; let’s get rid of the criminal stuff, too.
  11. Shred or burn the pictures that you don’t want other people to see.
  12. If you have things that are expensive, then take a picture and attach it to a list.  Assign a fair market value – figure it as the amount of money a willing buyer would pay a willing seller.  There are a ton of horror stories about people picking up million dollar heirlooms for pennies at estate sales.  Help your executor identify the treasure.
  13. Plan for care of your pets.  You may need to make it clear with a written pet trust.
  14. If your will mentions that you may leave a “written memorandum” regarding who gets what personal possessions, then write one out.  Remember, however, that it may be better to call out the gift as a specific bequest in your will if it is a high- dollar item or one that will be disputed.  Written memorandums sometimes mysteriously disappear.
  15. Stock certificates are still a thing.  If you hold stock outside of a brokerage account, then keep the certificates in a safe place and let your executor know where they are.
  16. Prepare a list of your insurance policies and the beneficiaries.  At some point, if you are fairly certain they won’t pop poison into your tea, you might let your beneficiaries know about the policies.
  17. If you are getting cremated, then make sure you have a written Designation of Burial Agent with instructions stating that is your choice.  Tell your burial agent.  Don’t forget to leave instructions on where you want your ashes to go.  If your instruction is that they are going to end up on someone’s mantle, then you might check with that person first.
  18. Laws change, finances change, people change.  These types of changes should inspire you to review your documents;  they may need to change too.
  19. Educate yourself and vote, especially in judicial races.  Someday a probate judge may decide your legacy.


Virginia Hammerle is a licensed Texas attorney.  Her practice includes estate planning, litigation, guardianship, and probate law.  See for her blog and newsletter sign-up.  This column does not constitute legal advice.