Life is complicated. Money is complicated. Now imagine someone you love getting a phone call at 1 a.m. and being asked to step into your shoes, make medical decisions for you, and manage your financial matters while you're temporarily or permanently unable to do so yourself. And this person has to do it all without operating instructions and clear legal permission to act on your behalf.

Estate planning helps make that scenario less harrowing. Giving the right forms and information to the right people helps ensure that loved ones don't have to fight in court for the right to carry out your final wishes, that insurance policies don't get paid out to former flames, and that people you trust can access accounts and assets in order to help maintain the status quo until you recover and take back the reins.

Yeah, but do I need an estate plan?
Creating an "estate plan" may conjure images of aristocrats wearing blazers adorned with family crests visiting their lawyer's mahogany-paneled offices to collect trust-fund checks and, while they're at it, write Junior out of the will (again) for crashing the Bentley.

What? You don't have a crusty old family lawyer who takes care of the administrative details? You don't have a vast family fortune in need of management?

Well, you do have an estate. In legal terms, an "estate" is nothing more than the stuff a person owns. These, my friend, are your assets. If you own stuff and have anyone on this planet whom you love, then you need an estate plan. If you have a significant other, kids, and/or property, then you definitely need an estate plan.

When it comes to creating an estate plan, you can actually complete much of the work on your own (although you may need to consult an experienced estate-planning attorney to execute some items, depending on the complexity of your finances or family life).

Print this out to create your estate "Command Central"
The first part of creating an estate plan is simply getting organized and accounting for what you own and owe -- and where the heck you filed that homeowner's insurance policy.

We've created this estate-planning checklist to help you gather and organize your estate-related paperwork, record contact information for your financial advisor and other professionals, and identify any holes or out-of-date information in your plan. There's also a page to record your wishes and arrangements for your funeral so your loved ones don't end up spending a fortune on things you either wouldn't want or already paid for.

In addition to the checklist that will serve as your "financial command central," you'll need to fill out a handful of important documents that will form the crux of your formal estate plan. The following documents will go a long way toward easing the headaches and heartaches of dealing with someone else's business in a time of crisis -- and will even save you and your loved ones some money over the long run.

So gather ye forms and lend us thy signature (and initial here, here, and here, please).

A living will (or advance medical/healthcare directive). This gives the person you name the power to make medical decisions based on your wishes when you're incapacitated. (If you want to make sure that person doesn't draw on your face with a Sharpie while you're unconscious, you'll have to rely on a gentlemen's agreement.)

A durable power of attorney. This lets you name someone to pay your mortgage, sign your tax returns, sell assets if needed, and generally mind your financial matters if you are incapacitated and can't do so yourself. Without this document, the court may appoint a guardian to take care of these tasks.

An up-to-date will. If you don't have a will, the state will decide who inherits your stuff without a full picture of your true final wishes. More importantly, a will is how you name someone to take care of your children if they're orphaned. Yeah, I know -- this is uplifting stuff.

There are do-it-yourself wills that can get the job done. Still, given the complexities of state laws -- and the sheer volume of books, movies, TV shows, and tabloid headlines based on bad wills that didn't stand up in court -- this document deserves some professional consultation, especially if your assets aren't just run-of-the-mill stuff. (Here are five tips on writing a last will.)

Related to wills are trusts. A trust is essentially a parking spot for your assets (cash, stocks, life insurance, real estate) that people use to ensure that their assets are handled correctly after death and don't go into probate. They're costly to set up -- we're talking thousands of dollars -- and involve a fair amount of administrative details to correctly transfer assets into the trust. A trust might make sense in one of the following situations:

  • You're remarried and want to ensure that your kids from a previous relationship get what's left over when your spouse dies
  • You want someone other than your heirs to manage your money
  • You have a disabled relative
  • You want to avoid probate
  • You're super rich -- i.e., you're leaving enough dough to your heirs that they'll have to pay federal estate taxes.

Review your beneficiary forms
Remember when you signed up for your company's 401(k) plan or opened a bank account or an IRA? At the time you were asked to fill out a form designating a beneficiary -- a person who gets your money when you pass on to that great tax shelter in the sky.

Make sure you review those occasionally (our estate-planning checklist provides a place to note who gets what from which account), because in many instances, the beneficiary form will trump what's in your will. ("Forgetting" who is supposed get what is the sweetest postmortem revenge for your ex-spouses.) Plus, if you don't name a specific beneficiary, or if you designate your estate as the beneficiary, then the money in your accounts (IRAs in particular) may have to go through probate, which will cost your heirs time and money.

While you're at it, make copies of your beneficiary forms and put them with your other important papers. Don't assume that 20 years from now a broker or banker will be able to locate the form you filled out. Here are the top five beneficiary form mistakes to avoid.

Congratulations -- you have an estate plan!
Before you pop open the bubbly, there's just one more thing to do: Create an annual recurring reminder on your calendar to review all of the information in your estate plan so that it's always up to date and accounts for any added or subtracted assets, accounts, advisors, heirs, and spouses.

Once you've compiled the important documents and information for your family (and told them where to find the file); filled out a living will, durable powers of attorney, and a will; and reviewed all your beneficiary forms, you'll probably live for another 100 years. Seriously, no research supports the notion that doing this grim work hastens your demise.

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