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Estate Planning Essentials

By: Corinne Cantwell Heggie

Chez Heggie, we have hung up our football cleats, pads, and helmets for the season. Glenbrook South High School’s freshman team finished second in their conference, the Junior Titan Big Ten Lightweights secured a playoff berth, and the Junior Titan PAC Middleweights made huge strides that its team of passionate rookies, and their fans, will always remember.

As the Heggie team manager, I wash and store equipment and, in so doing, discovered the trusty swim bag John and I toted religiously, even in wintertime, until about 4 years ago. This swim bag worked harder than any diaper bag I ever met. It held swim shirts, towels, diaper cream, moisturizer, floaties, pacifiers, Goldfish crackers, baby Motrin, Pedialyte, sun hats, baseball hats, swim diapers, dive toys, juice boxes, sippy cups, clothes, sunglasses, Matchbox cars, Legos, straws, Nerf footballs, and, in the summer, an endless array of sunscreen in spray, tube, or chapstick form. It had the fix for essentially any problem.

Now, my bag of essentials feels . . . empty. My boys navigate school, athletics, extracurricular activities, and life as teenagers do with a lot more independence.The swim bag transported me to the little kid trenches that fatigued me to my core and, curiously, now, my core aches for.

What is more, the swim bag has stuck in my craw. Why? Because since I retired that swim bag, I have felt pretty vulnerable as a parent. I feel vulnerable because typically I have absolutely no idea if I am doing the right thing as a parent. I am a fast learner and tough cookie. That said, my teenagers are giving me a run for my money as I navigate this great unknown.

Experience proves that many people feel vulnerable about estate planning for the same reason: it is an unknown. To dispel with uncertainty, let’s block and tackle four essential documents in an estate plan. For those who have some or all of these documents, may this be an invitation to locate those documents and read them to make sure they align with your goals.

For those of you who do not have an estate plan, I invite you to learn about a few essential documents that can protect you, your family, and your property from loss and taxes. Then you can fill your swim bag with your essentials and kick uncertainty to the curb.


A will is a document that a person writes to identify beneficiaries of property he owns in his own name. The named beneficiaries in his will receive the property when he dies. Why is this important?

First, a will is created when a person is living but the will is not effective until a person is deceased. Second, a will does not help a person manage his assets or real estate while he is alive. For a parent, this means a will does not provide for a child when a parent is living with a disability or incapacity. Finally, a will must be filed into the public record when a person dies. This means a will is not a private document.

There are three reasons why a will is essential. First, a parent can name a guardian to step into his shoes to care for minor children. Illinois law requires that a guardian be 18 years old, a U.S. resident, and willing to accept the responsibility. A parent can name two people to serve as guardians.

Second, a person can name an executor to be in charge of his assets when he dies. The executor will ensure assets get to the named beneficiaries, including minor children. The executor can also appear in court if a probate judge is involved in distributing property. Illinois law requires that an executor is 18 years old, has the capacity to serve in the role, is a U.S. resident, and is not a felon.

Third, with a will, a person can excuse an executor from Illinois’ bond requirement. A bond is calculated by law based on the assets a person owns in his own name on his death. The bond is paid before the judge distributes assets to beneficiaries. If a will does not excuse bond, a probate judge will require it.


A health care power of attorney is a document a person signs to name a trusted adult to make healthcare decisions for him when he is living and cannot make decisions himself. Illinois lawmakers identified specific requirements for an agent under a health care power of attorney. One is that an agent be at least 18 years old. While there is no residency requirement, it may be a best practice to name an agent who can get to a doctor or hospital quickly if that is important for you. Also, the document must have one witness and Illinois has laws about who that witness can be. Finally, Illinois law prohibits a person from naming two people to be co-agents; however, a back-up, or successor agent can be named. Once signed, the health care power of attorney can be provided to doctors to have it on file in case of a medical emergency.


A property power of attorney is a document a person signs to name a trusted adult to make financial decisions about his property when he is living and cannot make decisions himself. The document must be signed before at least one witness and a notary public. If a person owns property outside Illinois, two witnesses is advisable. An agent must be at least 18 years old. While there is no residency requirement for an agent under property power of attorney, it may be a best practice to name an agent who can physically get to a bank if the person does not pay bills and manage money electronically. If you manage your assets electronically, make sure your named agent is up for managing your assets electronically too.


A living trust agreement is a contract a person signs with himself that allows him to own property “in trust.” When a person signs a trust, a person can think of the trust like a box. With a signed trust, a person can fill the trust box with bank accounts, real property, insurance benefits, business interests, certificates of deposit, stock, and more. A trust does not prevent a person from growing, investing, liquidating, diversifying, or selling assets that are put into the trust box. Also, for parents, a living trust can provide a private road map for guardians to provide for children.

A living trust adds value to estate plans to avoid taxes and to plan for in case of incapacity or disability. Some other reasons to include a trust in an estate plan are: (1) to maintain privacy; (2) to avoid a probate judge deciding who gets property; and (3) to name a back- up trustee to handle trust property when the person dies.

To sign a trust, a person needs to answer three questions: (1) who will be the trustee when a person cannot be the trustee: (2) what people, charities, or organizations receive trust assets when a person dies; and (3) how often should the trust pay income to children for parents with minor children?

Corinne Cantwell Heggie is a principal of Heggie Wochner Law Firm LLC and safeguards individuals, families and business owners from costly court battles, asset loss and taxes with wills, trusts, and powers of attorney. Corinne goes to probate court if a judge must distribute property. From 2019-2020, Corinne served as the President of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois. Corinne is a member of the Illinois Bar Foundation’s Planned Giving Committee and a board member of the North Suburban Bar Association.


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