An old blues song says: “Everybody wants to go to heaven. Nobody wants to die.” But the fact is, we all die.
And when you do, one or more people will have to settle your financial affairs. Since that’s a difficult task, do a huge favor for the ones you love and invest some time and money now to make things easier for them when the day comes.
In my new book, When Someone Dies, I devote a chapter to all the things you should do along these lines, including advice about wills, advance directives, powers of attorney and living trusts. (I also have practical advice for dealing with a loved one's death on my website, Whensomeonedies.net.) Here are nine important actions you need to take:
Create a file labeled “My Estate Plan” Place copies of all your estate planning documents in one file clearly labeled “My Estate Plan” and put them in a drawer or box.
(MORE: Make That Scary but Essential Money List)
This file should include your will, end-of-life instructions (advance directives and a medical power of attorney), living trusts, organ donation wishes, guardianship decisions, real estate records and your financial records for assets and debts. Include a signed document naming your executors (more about them shortly). Then give copies of all these documents to your heirs and others you love and trust.
Don't forget about your digital estate, things like your online accounts and downloaded destinations, and how you'll want it handled. Next Avenue's article, "5 Steps to Creating Your Digital Estate," explains how to create an inventory list with instructions on how to access these assets.
Name your executors An executor, typically named in a will, is the person who’ll be in charge of your estate. Executors are responsible for settling financial affairs, from getting your debts and taxes paid to distributing assets and, if necessary, dealing with probate (the legal process for authenticating a will).
Spouses often choose each other as executors in their wills. If you’re not married, select someone you trust: one of your children, a relative or close friend. Choose a secondary executor, too, in case your primary executor dies or becomes incapacitated. Tell your family and friends who your primary and secondary executors are.
(MORE: First Financial Steps to Take After Losing a Spouse)
If your will contains any unusual instructions or bequests, it’s best to inform your executor in advance. That way, the executor can anticipate any potential conflicts and perhaps take steps to minimize them.
Add your executor as a co-signer on your financial accounts This makes the money you have in the bank and investments immediately available to pay for your funeral and other expenses, like airfare for loved ones who could not otherwise afford to attend your funeral or shipping your pet to a distant guardian.
Having a co-signer also means money will be available during any probate and can be easily tapped by your heirs.
If possible, provide your executor with easy access to about $10,000. That money could help pay for such things as funeral expenses and contracting for home repairs to prepare your home for sale.
Rent a safe deposit box In the unlikely event that your house burns down, taking all your records with it, you’ll want to have copies of all your estate planning and end-of-life care documents in a bank vault.
Be sure your primary executor is listed as a co-signer for the safe deposit box, so he or she will have immediate access to its contents. Don’t forget to give your executor the box key.
Decide on organ donation If you want to be an organ donor, tell your executor, family and close friends. In addition, put this decision in writing and keep the document in your “My Estate Plan” file.
Make funeral requests Do you want to be buried or cremated? Would you like your remains prepared in a “green” way? Should there be a traditional funeral or less formal memorial? If issues like these are important to you, address them in your estate plan and tell your executor, family and close friends.
If you want to be buried, buy a grave site Add the deed to "My Estate Plan" and place a copy in your safe deposit box. Make sure your executor and family know the grave’s location.
(MORE: Don’t Become a Shoebox Widow)
Consider legacy gifts Charitable acts are deeply personal, of course, but if you feel passionately about one or more organizations or nonprofits, include a gift to them in your will. The good that money will do after you are gone is immense.
Update your estate plan regularly If your personal situation changes — you get divorced or remarried, for example — revise your will. At least once a year, be certain everything in your estate plan file is up to date, including investment and bank statements. That will ensure there's no confusion regarding your assets and wishes. Remember: the key is to make life easy for your survivors.
Adapted from When Someone Dies by Scott Taylor Smith and Michael Castleman (Simon & Schuster, 2013)