October 1, 2003
Denial is a powerful tool when it comes to facing life's unpleasant issues. Like the unthinkable and inevitable: death.
According to a recent survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for Findlaw.com, a lot of us are in denial. The legal website found that 57% of Americans do not have a will.
We don't want to lecture, but we do want to point out that ignoring the consequences of your passing can cause confusion and uncertainty in the best-case scenario -- family rifts and serious financial losses in the worst. Only 41% of American adults currently have a will, down from 44% one year ago. Two percent of survey respondents did not know if they had a will or had no response.
A will and estate plan outlines how to handle your assets (who gets what from your estate); who you want to have care for any minor children (and establishes trusts for them or other beneficiaries, such as charities); who your executors will be; and even care needs for Fido and Fifi.
Your kids might act like they're listening, but do they really follow through? Does your family know how to carry out your final wishes? And do you trust the state to do right by you? A will is particularly important for people who have minor children or children from a previous marriage; have an estate that may be subject to estate taxes; or have a family-owned property or business, says Findlaw.
A few tips:
- See an attorney. A will it isn't that expensive, and it ensures your property will be distributed in accordance with your wishes. Beware of some of the preprinted, fill-in-the-blanks forms and software available for this purpose. These are often out of date and may not conform to the laws of your state.
- Review your will every five years at a minimum. Verify its validity and conformance with state law.
- Be aware of what counts as an estate asset for tax purposes when you die. Basically, that's everything you own, including the face value of life insurance policies and the current value of all your retirement plans. You may pass an estate of unlimited value to your spouse at death with no unfavorable tax consequences. When that spouse dies, though, there may be some heavy taxes that cause your children to receive far less than they should. Know that is possible and prepare for it.
- Get a durable power of attorney and medical power of attorney. If you become incapacitated, either mentally or physically, these documents allow the person you select to make decisions on your behalf.
- Execute a living will. This document says you want the right to die a natural death free of all costly, extraordinary efforts to maintain your life by artificial means. The form is free at virtually every hospital in the nation.
As long as we're on this delightful topic, find out more ways to disaster-proof your finances in our aptly titled How-To Guide: Disaster-Proof Your Finances. It is free to TMF Money Advisor subscribers, and $30 for non-members. (Hint: You can test-drive the seminar for free for 30 days by clicking this link.)