Chances are, you have definite feelings about how you would want these “what ifs” and others like them to play out in real life. But unless you have specific estate planning documents in place that clearly spell out your wishes, your intentions would have little effect on what actually happens.

Take control

Typically, these issues surface at stressful, time-critical points when clarity of thought isn’t easy. Without your direction, your family and friends could struggle to figure out what you would want. That could make an already difficult time more confusing, traumatic and costly for them.

In fact, in the absence of estate planning documents, state law has a backup plan for you, and it may not be what you have in mind. Laws, interpreted and administered by strangers, would determine who gets your assets and personal items, who cares for your minor children, which medical treatments you get and how your financial affairs are managed.

It all comes down to a choice: either take control or relinquish control of some of your most important lifetime decisions. So, what do you need now to take control of your own future? Four (and, in some cases, five) legal documents are “must haves.”

The four essentials for everyone

A will designates who will get each of your assets when you die, whether they are valuable such as your home or purely sentimental such as your grandmother’s china. If your children are minors, you also use the will to name their guardian.

Some assets, such as life insurance, 401(k)s and IRAs, have their own beneficiary designations that override the will. These documents, not your will, determine who gets the accounts when you die, so you’ll want to make sure they always reflect the beneficiaries of your choosing.

A durable power of attorney names a trusted person or institution to manage your finances (such as file your taxes and pay your bills) if you can’t do it for yourself—for example, when you’re incapacitated or out of the country for an extended period of time.

Think of this document as a companion to the will. The power of attorney stays in effect as long as you’re alive (unless you revoke it) and ends when you die. The will picks up where the power of attorney leaves off: as long as you live, it is not in effect but becomes operative when you die. There is no overlap between the two.

A living will (in Texas, a medical directive) specifies the medical treatments that you want and don’t want if you are critically injured or gravely ill and can’t make decisions for yourself. In other words, this document enables you to decide what life-saving measures you want medical professionals to take in clearly defined circumstances.

A medical power of attorney gives someone you trust the legal right to make decisions about your medical care and end-of-life issues, such as burial, if you can’t make those decisions for yourself.

One addition you might need

A revocable living trust appoints a person or a corporate entity to act on your behalf even while you’re alive and well; it transcends the will and the durable power of attorney. You fund the trust by placing your assets—real estate, investments, valuable collections, anything—in it. Depending on your circumstances, you may or may not want or need a trust. One particular benefit appeals to many people: a trust enables your heirs to bypass the probate and court costs associated with wills.

Other types of trusts also exist to help manage your affairs if you have specialized needs, goals or circumstances you want to address in your estate plan.

In addition to these must-have documents, also consider how you set up financial assets, such as bank and investment accounts, annuities and safe deposit boxes, that are controlled by how they are titled or styled. Accounts set up with more than one account holder are generally accessible to any party on the account. If one of the account holders is unable to act, another account holder can take action, when necessary.

Best advice: Get started on estate planning sooner rather than later. Talk with your wealth advisor for guidance, then consult a qualified attorney who will prepare the necessary documents according to current state law.

Garrick Behelfer is a wealth advisor for Frost Wealth Advisors in Houston.