I’ll bet many people reading this article haven’t finished their estate plan.
According to CNBC’s 2015 survey, 38% of those polled with investable assets of $1 million or more have not established an estate plan. Lots of people take the responsible step and get started on making sure things are in place in the event of their death or incapacitating illness.
Unfortunately, far too few of us actually finish the process. So many people put it off, postpone it indefinitely, or refuse to acknowledge its usefulness. Some individuals will take the time to meet with an estate planning attorney and draft their documents, but not sign them. Others will hastily change the subject to a less existential topic. A famous example of avoidance comes from legendary pop musician Prince, who died suddenly with no will in place despite his massive fortune.
But if you have loved ones and assets, and care about where those assets end up, estate planning is a must. So let’s make sure you’re not part of the aforementioned 38%.
The decisions you make for the end of your life and beyond will have an important impact on your loved ones. It’s therefore important to communicate with loved ones about your estate plan. Miscommunication or failure to communicate can result in misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and even severed relationships when you are no longer able to explain your decisions.
As you work on your estate plan, keep these tips in mind:
- Let your next of kin know you have an estate plan, will, or living will, and where you have stored those documents.
- If you’ve named someone in those documents—specifying that a certain item should go to a specific individual, or naming a close friend as executor of your estate, or made them responsible for important decisions on your behalf—make sure those people know they are named and are willing to serve.
- If you’ve made someone responsible for medical decisions, be sure he or she has a copy of your medical directives. Also, make sure they are willing and able to make tough decisions, should they be called for.
- Prepare letters of instruction for people who will need to act on your behalf. These letters can provide important information, such as where to find online passwords for financial accounts, the location of bank and investment accounts, the names and contact information for your financial team.
- Letters of intent, while not legally binding, can help provide guidance for the people who will be responsible for carrying out your estate plan.
- Have an actual, spoken conversation with loved ones about your wishes. Take the time.
- Have another. These things are best discussed whenever the comfortable opportunity arises.
Storage tips for estate planning documents
Having completed your documents is one thing; making sure that everyone appropriate has access to them in a time fashion is equally important. If you’ve just died or are severely ill, do you really want to force your grieving family or close friends to spend time and energy trying to figure out where the documents are so they can fulfill your wishes?
If your original documents can’t be found, the court will presume you didn’t create any, and will proceed as though you died “intestate,” and your assets will pass to your closest kin via state law, rather than by the terms you set. Your loved ones will endure a lengthy probate, and your wishes will be thwarted. Think about what could go wrong.
Keep your original documents in a safe place, ideally protected from fire and floods, in a place easily identified and relocatable, perhaps in a fire- and waterproof safe.
If you choose to use a safe or a safety deposit box, make sure someone you know and trust has access besides yourself. Store the safe’s combination in a place you will be able to find it. Share it with key loved ones, or tell them where to find it.
PRO TIP: Name a joint owner of your safety deposit box.
If the safety deposit box is in your sole name, your family will need a court order to open up the box. If you have a revocable living trust, consider putting the box in the name of your trust so the successor trustee can gain immediate access.
Give a copy of your estate planning documents to the individual you have named executor of your will (and anyone you’ve named as a back-up). It’s a good idea to share your estate planning attorney’s contact information with those individuals as well. Also, be sure to give a copy to your financial advisor and make sure that all named individuals know how to contact him or her. Give a copy of any healthcare directives to your primary care physician as well as to whomever you’ve empowered to make healthcare decisions in the event you are incapacitated.
Your estate planning attorney will likely retain signed copies of all paperwork relating to your estate, but check with their office to confirm how long they keep such paperwork on file. (Your attorney may be averse to storing your original documents, as this could be a liability risk.) You can also store copies digitally, although some courts require original hard copies.
Sharing your love
Estate planning can be a loving way to help look after your family when you are no longer able to do so. Talking about death and disability can be difficult, but keeping loved ones updated on your estate planning can help make your wishes clear and prevent misunderstandings after you’re gone.
Oh, and one last thing: Your life changes. Your family changes. Your wishes change. Laws change. Check in with your attorney every few years just to make sure that your plan remains current.