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9 Steps to Getting Your Estate Plan in Order

Making these moves now will make things easier for your family later


(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.com.

No one really wants to talk about death. But physical death is inevitable, for everyone.

 
The death of a spouse, family member or close friend brings a deep sadness as the complications of grieving begin. At such a difficult time when you are experiencing the emotional, mental and physical lethargy that comes with such an experience of loss, there is the added strain of having to be mentally centered to make, what seems to be, endless decisions such as: Notification of family and friends, taking care of funeral arrangements, scheduling religious visitation, making arrangements for out-of-town guests, ordering death certificates, and handling immediate financial issues.
 
On top of all that you have to be mindful of the timely requirements of the IRS, Social Security Administration, compliance with state inheritance laws, handling of other grieving family members and possibly those who feel entitled to resources left behind. Some of the decisions that you will be required to make during this difficult and highly charged emotional time can have permanent repercussions for your life going forward.

(MORE: What Boomers Think About Death and Dying)

Planning Now Saves Grief Later
 
As an expression of kindness toward your loved ones and to make the experience a bit easier for everyone involved. It’s important to plan the administrative issues related to death well in advance and in such a way that all will flow smoothly when a death occurs.
 
While you should work with your own estate planning professional, here are nine suggestions to help prepare you to begin the process:
 
1. Discuss the issue of death openly with your family. Determine what each person's end-of-life wishes are. An excellent resource book on this is The Other Talk by Tim Prosch. By observation and personal experience, I have found that the initial timing of this talk is usually a bit more comfortable when someone outside the family has died. Keep in mind that you are doing what is necessary to create the foundation for a smooth transitional experience, to have things be as comfortable and organized as possible for your loved ones as well as for yourself, as it relates to your spouse, children, family and friends.
 
2. Make yourself aware of the inheritance laws in your state. There are only nine community property states and inheritance laws can vary significantly from state to state. Don't assume if you have a will that your wishes are set in stone. Some understanding of how property passes on death in the state of your primary residence will be helpful. Laws governing property division can be complicated, so you will want to know the details of how the laws are written in your state and how they may apply to you. This would be a good time to consult with an estate attorney.

(MORE: How to Plan a Funeral)
 

3. If you find that you will need to hire an attorney, choose one that is qualified in estate, probate and tax planning who is highly rated by his or her peers. A reliable rating source is superlawyers.com
 
4. Prepare for the consultation with your attorney. Here's how: 
  • Get details on how fees will be charged.
  • Familiarize yourself with inheritance laws in your state.
  • Write down questions before your meeting. 
  • Be prepared to answer questions regarding your assets, guardianship decisions, medical preferences, end-of-life bequests and more.
  • Prepare to discuss the need for a will, the possible need for a trust and choosing an executor of your estate.
5. Make sure your beneficiary assignments are current and accurate. Life insurance, annuities, IRAs, 401(k), 403b are all passed by named beneficiary(s). To check on this, contact the company and request a copy of the current beneficiary assignment on file. If you need to update and change your beneficiaries, do so immediately. Once you have submitted the changes, request a letter from the receiving institution showing the account number and confirming the change. File the letter with your records file as proof of the update. Remember that the release of money due any assigned beneficiary is dependent on the institution receiving an accurate and legible death certificate.

(MORE: Make Things Easier for Survivors)

6. Consider setting up a joint checking account with your chosen executor. This arrangement will provide the necessary funds required to pay for funeral expenses, travel for family members, obituary costs, hiring people to help with various immediate needs, hotels for out-of-town family members, transportation, food and bills that come due during this time while waiting for accounts to be released and settlements to come through. Since the person you name as joint owner will “own” the account at your death, consider putting in the minimum amount needed to meet these emergency expenses.
7. Set up a secure filing system that is easily accessible to keep your most important documents such as birth certificates, Social Security numbers, military discharge papers, marriage licenses or copies of a divorce decree. If there are multiple divorces, be sure you have copies of those documents on file in the event that there is confusion or conflict at the time of death. Provide the location of keys to the safe-deposit box, a list of benefits from your current or past employer. Keep a copy of the benefits brochure in the file, list the name and contact information of the CPA, bookkeeper, financial/investment adviser, stockbroker and insurance agent. Some families have a master file with all of this information for each family member.
8. Secure a list of all passwords for your electronic files, online accounts, PIN numbers for debit accounts, codes to get into your vehicle(s), passwords for cellphones for you and your spouse as well as all social media usernames and passwords. I have a dear friend whose husband died in the back seat of a taxi in the middle of Times Square. They were from California and had decided to use only his cellphone while vacationing in New York City. When he died his wife was in a total panic. She tried making calls to friends and family for help, support and advice on how to handle the tragedy she was experiencing. Her communication was crippled by the fact that she couldn't retrieve messages from people calling her back because she didn't have the password to get into voicemail.
9. If you manage your investments, think through what would happen to your portfolio if your spouse or partner and children weren't capable of continuing that work. The same is true regarding an extensive real-estate portfolio. This is your personal wealth, most of what you would be leaving to your spouse and your heirs, but it could be wiped out simply by not being attended to properly. Consider carefully who will handle this for you and when you may begin to involve them.
These are a few suggestions to help you get administratively organized for death. Once someone dies there is much work to be done.
 
An excellent book that covers the details of exactly what needs to happen, step by step, immediately following the pronouncement of death is When Someone Dies…The Practical Guide to the Logistics of Death by Scott Taylor Smith. Also, Consumer Reports has an excellent article, “What To Do When a Loved One Dies.”
Melody Juge is managing director of Life Income Management. For over 30 years, she has specialized in creating income for life for people age 50+. You can contact her at melody.juge@corecapinv.com.

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