female hands signing legal documents

The 5 Legal Documents Every Adult Needs and How to Get Them

Every adult must have five legal documents—each one signed, dated, notarized as necessary, and kept in a safe place that someone else knows about and can retrieve at a moment’s notice.

female hands signing legal documents

It’s been years since my husband and I sat for hours with an attorney specializing in estate planning. That was not the most pleasant thing I’ve ever done. We were young, and the idea of being old and planning for our respective deaths seemed ludicrous.

That meeting, together with nearly $2,500, made us the proud owners of a Family Trust and Estate Plan, which includes our individual five important legal documents that every adult must have—absolutely. I’m grateful to have gone through that ordeal, but in hindsight, I’m certain we could have avoided much of the stress and cut the cost, too.

Even if you’re sure you have all of your essential legal documents in order, please be certain about that. Did you get married? Have a baby? Buy a house? Life changes, laws change, and regulations get upgraded without notice. It’s possible your documents could use an update.

Wake-up Message

Recently, a letter from Jenny reminded me that we need to update the documents in our Estate Plan because they may be outdated. For sure, they are “out of state,” due to our relocation to Colorado.

Thankfully, we now have an option to do this ourselves—legally and properly—for a whole lot less than it cost us decades ago. More about that in a bit. But first, a letter that popped up in my virtual mailbag:

Dear Mary: I’m 50, married, and have two adult children. Our financial life is not complicated. I do not have a Will and know that I should. Can I put faith in a simple Will done by one of the large online companies or is it in my family’s best interest that I hire a lawyer? I have read your work for many years and appreciate your advice. Thank you. Jenny

Thank you for the trust you put in me, Jenny. That is something I highly value. My quick answer is that absolutely you and your husband need individual Wills plus four other legal documents each, too.

I have a resource to recommend to you, which will help you do this yourself—a reputable legal help organization I believe you can trust without reservation.

Will this preclude the need to hire an attorney? It could, but I cannot advise you on that because every situation is different. I can tell you that you can do this yourself and be well protected now with all of your information and desires written down in proper legal order—and have that to take to an attorney if or when you find that necessary.

The Big Five

There are five legal documents every adult must have—each one signed, dated, notarized as necessary, and kept in a safe place that someone else knows about and can retrieve at a moment’s notice:

  • Will
  • Advanced Directive
  • Healthcare Power of Attorney
  • Durable Power of Attorney
  • Revocable or Family Trust

1. Will

A will is a legal document that designates who should receive your assets after death. It is not just for the elderly. Everyone, especially those with dependent children, should have a will. This allows you to name guardians for any dependent children. Without a will, the courts decide what happens to the assets and who is responsible for the kids. Your Will also names your executor—the person overseeing and protecting your interests if your estate needs to go to probate. Generally, your Will distributes the assets you hold and names an executor—the person who will handle the distribution and other affairs involved upon your death.

Some states recognize a “holographic will” if you just want to scribble something on a napkin and call it done. I do not recommend that, however. What a nightmare you would leave for your family that could lead to horrendous costs. Having no Will at all is even worse.

2. Advanced Directive

Also known as a Medical or Healthcare Directive,  this states what you want to have happen concerning extraordinary measures to keep you alive should you be terminal or permanently unconscious. Your Advanced Directive states whether you want artificial support for breathing and eating, such as a ventilator and feeding tube. The Advanced (Medical) Directive ensures your wishes will be respected at the end of life and provides clarity and guidance to family members.

3. Healthcare Power of Attorney

Your Healthcare Power of Attorney steps in if you cannot make medical decisions yourself. It names the person you want to make those decisions on your behalf. I highly recommend that you name up to five people in successive order to make sure there is someone there who is authorized to make these decisions for you.

4. Durable Power of Attorney

Sometimes referred to as Power of Attorney for Finances, this is the document by which you designate one or more persons to handle the financial aspects of your life, should you become temporarily or permanently unable to do so because you are mentally or physically incapacitated. We’re talking about simple things you might not think of but could become very problematic if you are unable to communicate—things like picking up your mail, paying your bills, filing your taxes, moving money from one account to another, filing for Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security; or any number of other issues pertaining to your finances.

5. Revocable Trust

This document gives your designated heir(s) immediate access and control of the assets you wish to pass to them upon your death, without the need to transfer ownership. You don’t have to be rich or have vast assets to benefit greatly with a Revocable or Family Trust. A life insurance policy, checking account, house, or any asset of value merits establishing a revocable trust. In this document, for which you will likely name yourselves as Trustee(s), you also name the successive Trustee upon your death.

There are other important advantages to this type of trust. For one thing, unlike a Will that becomes a matter of public record, a Trust is private. You may have an issue in your family that you don’t want to disclose to the public at large.

Without a trust, an estate must go through probate, a costly and lengthy process in which the court administers the distribution of the estate (your assets). And if the estate holds property in multiple states, it will have to go through probate in each state. Having all of your assets in a trust avoids probate. This document does other things as well, but this may be the most important.

How to Get the 5 Docs

Hire an attorney

Locate an attorney in your area that specializes in wills and estate planning. Make the appointment. You will likely be given a list of information and specific items you will need to bring with you to your appointment. This attorney will be prepared to create these documents based on all of the information you have gathered, together with your state’s best practices and laws.

DIY

Wait. Hear me out. With the right resources, you may be able to do this work yourself in a way that is legal, thorough, and quite possibly much easier (and cheaper) than the attorney option above. And with that, I have more than likely caused some in my audience to pull their hair out while shrieking in terror.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting you open up a blank page in Word and just start typing out what you think will (pun intended) be suitable. NO! You must have the proper legal documents for your state. You need legal counsel. You need basically all that in a reliable format where you simply fill in the blanks.

Below, you will find the only DIY option that, in my opinion, meets the criteria mentioned, plus a lot more. And all of that for one flat rate that’s less these days than a single meal in a nice restaurant.

Resource

I recommend Quicken WillMaker & Trust 2023 from Nolo Press, a highly regarded and reputable online legal organization specializing in helping ordinary folks like you and me handle our basic legal needs.

Quicken WillMaker

Quicken WillMaker & Trust 2023 includes dozens of forms starting with the big five documents mentioned above and also practical forms you can use every day to help run your home and keep your family safe, including authorizations and agreements, promissory notes, limited powers of attorney, and child and elder care forms, final arrangements, and lots more.

Quicken WillMaker & Trust 2023 is compatible with the laws in every U.S. state (except for Louisiana*, U.S. Territories; not compatible with Canada). And boy is it easy to use—just fill in the blanks. And you can revise it in the future as necessary, without another big legal bill.

You can purchase this program, which is a download from Nolo Press Please read the options carefully as things change so quickly these days! You want the option that includes the 5 documents listed above, which, as I update, is the  $139 PLUS option.

Quicken WillMaker & Trust 2023 is also available on Amazon.

To be clear, once you make the purchase, you will not receive anything by mail. Nolo Press will email you the authorization link to download the entire Quicken WillMaker & Trust 2023 bundle onto your computer’s hard drive.

Then, in the privacy of your own home, you will be able to customize the five documents mentioned above—all before tomorrow morning or at your own pace. When the time comes, you can depend on those documents to be correctly prepared, completely legal, and simple for those you will designate to be in charge of your finances, health, and possessions. The forms can be used multiple times for one year from purchase, so that other adults in your household can also create their legal documents.

Quicken WillMaker & Trust 2023 is compatible with Windows 11,10,8.1 and Mac OS Sierra 10.13 and higher.

*Because of Louisiana’s strict requirements, relying on a generic “Last Will and Testament” form is not wise. Failure to get the form right will result in an invalid document or lead to estate litigation due to Louisiana’s unique civil law system.

Nolo does offer this simple Willmaker for Louisiana residents that has been prepared and vetted by a team of attorneys. If you live in Louisiana and also wish to create your Durable Power of Attorney and Health Care Directive, see a Louisiana lawyer for help.

**This promo is valid through 10-5-22. This offer cannot be used by 1) trade library or academic sales accounts, 2) other resellers. Not valid for Nolo’s Online LLC, Online Corporation or PPA. Limit one coupon per transaction. All products are covered by Quicken’s “No Hassle” return policy.

Updated: 10-5-2022


 

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12 replies
  1. Pat Moore says:

    Dearest (really!) Mary, the lawyer who made out our will about 4 years ago is not responding to my calls made since my husband passed away in November. This lawyer lives in another city. We paid him a gawdawful amount of money for his services. If I purchase the Quicken program above, will it supercede whatever this attorney prepared for us 4 years ago? Do I have to have another attorney file this Quicken program with the State or County for me? I absolutely love all that you do for so many people with your column. God bless you.

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      So sorry for your loss, Pat! I can’t imagine what you are going thru, but hope you are doing as well as can be expected. First I am not an attorney. These are my opinions: No you can create anything now to supercede the documents that your husband signed. You should not need the services of the past attorney in order to activate or rely upon what was created and filed. However that is just my opinion and not a very good one in that I do not know the contents of the will and estate plan. You should be able to carry out now that he is deceased, the specifics your late husband directed in those documents, i.e. transfer of title to property, dispersement of assets, etc. If you do not feel capable now to do that, you do need to find an attorney to direct the dispositions which have been made and are more than likely legalling binding.

      Reply
  2. Pat C says:

    I cannot agree more with Mary about the importance of wills and powers of attorney and advance directives, because my family have experienced what the lack of them can do. My aunt and uncle died without wills with 5 children ranging in age from 3 to 16. When that happened the government stepped in and controlled the estate until the youngest child turned 21, (it would be 18 now). So the estate could not be settled for 18 years. When my father had his first stroke, none of us had ever heard of a power of attorney and as next of kin my mother could direct his medical care. But my father’s signature was needed on a legal document at a time when he couldn’t even hold a pen and we didn’t know if he would ever be competent to sign. Luckily, he recovered sufficiently and as soon as he was able, and the doctor said he was competent we all got powers of attorney. When my husband was admitted to hospital and they asked about advance directives, I knew how serious the situation was. Luckily, we had advance directives and I could tell them the limits of the treatment. Please spare your families from having to deal with these situations.

    Reply
    • Mary Hunt says:

      Wow … thanks for sharing this, Pat C. I hope it helps to move my dear readers to action on behalf of themselves and then their family and friends as well

      Reply
  3. Robin Greenwood says:

    Thank you, Mary, for forcing me to deal with this for my 86-year-old mother. I have been nervous about asking her if she has a will. Today I bit the bullet, handed her a printout of this article, and asked her flat-out if she had a Will. My sister is Executor, which is the only thing that’s definitely set up right now (I am truly quite happy about this!!). I found out Mom doesn’t have a Will. I know some of her final wishes, but it needs to be in writing to prevent potential blowups between my sister and me.
    Thank you again for this article, and all of the other (very helpful) articles I’ve read!
    Very sincerely,
    Robin

    Reply
  4. Kitti says:

    According to Nolo’s site, the $89 Starter package does NOT include a Durable Power of Attorney or a Revocable Trust. I’m confused as your article says it does. The $129 Plus package does include those 2 documents.
    Comments?

    Reply
  5. Deborah says:

    There are only two of the five documents you mentioned that are included in the $89 package. There is an extra charge for the other three, up to as much as $199. Just thought you might want to clear this up for your readers. Thanks

    Reply

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