Judging by how little estate planning Americans do, they apparently don't mind making life difficult for themselves and their loved ones.

That can be the consequence of not implementing such basic estate planning tools as a standard will, a living will, or a financial power of attorney. Without these documents, your property may not end up going where you want it to and you may put unnecessary stress—emotional and financial—on your loved ones upon your death or in the event you become incapacitated.

The reality is that going through life without an estate plan can be a disaster for your loved ones, and even yourself. And no adult is too young or has too small an estate to warrant skipping some of these fundamental estate planning components.

A will. A will directs the state where and how you want your personal property and other assets distributed when you die. Without a valid will, the state will decide according to statute. Wills are especially critical if you're married, have children, or have other dependents. If you have minor or dependent adult children, the will should designate who will take care of them in the event of your death. Even a young, single person with modest assets should have a will if they care about where their assets would go should they die young.

Keep in mind that a will controls only property that is in your sole ownership, such as personal possessions, antiques, automobiles, your favorite golf clubs, or possibly your home. It does not control jointly owned property or assets with beneficiary designations such as life insurance, retirement accounts, and trust assets (though assets such as a home or antiques could be included in a trust).

Advanced directives. The two key advanced directives are a living will and a medical power of attorney. The living will is your expression of what life-sustaining medical treatment you want or don't want should you become permanently incapacitated. It can provide invaluable guidance to your loved ones at a time of great stress. Though not always honored by medical institutions, a medical power of attorney gives a third party, such as a spouse or adult child, the power to make medical decisions on your behalf when you're unable.

Durable power of attorney. A durable power (goes into effect upon signing) gives another person, such as your spouse, child, or sibling, the legal power to act financially on your behalf should you become incapacitated, even if temporarily. This can be as restrictive (bill paying only, for example) or as comprehensive (able to sell property, file tax returns) as you wish to make it.

While many people believe medical directives or powers of attorney are just for older people, the reality is that one can become incapacitated at any age.

While you can buy "off the shelf" estate planning documents such as wills and living wills, it's almost always best to hire an attorney to draft or at least review the documents so they are tailored to your desires and conform to your state's laws. The last thing you want is something open to misinterpretation or challenge, or that is just plain invalid.

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