How-To Guide: Plan Your Estate
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We really didn't want to bring this up, but the statisticians just told us there is a 100% chance you will die. That is not a typo.
Barring Armageddon or the total collapse of society (we're willing to concede that these require no financial plan), life will continue on after you are gone. And some sad soul -- likely one of your favorite people -- will be stuck with wrapping up your affairs. To make it worse, along the road to this unavoidable end, there's a good chance you'll be incapable of managing your financial affairs. (We're relentless, aren't we?)
But wait! There is good news. It is not difficult to put a few safeguards in place so you won't have to worry about this stuff, and you can go back to skipping through life wearing that smile we love so much.
All you need to do is fill out some paperwork and your financial affairs will be in order when you become incapacitated, whether temporarily (e.g., in a coma) or permanently (e.g., in a coffin).
Take care of this paperwork today by following this basic outline:
1. Cruise through the rundown of the "Really Important Stuff Worksheet."
We've borrowed this PDF worksheet from the Fool's old personal finance service, TMF Green Light. It's mind-numbingly comprehensive, but don't be overwhelmed. Take it one bite at a time. This outline reveals the high points to make the job go faster. Remember, it's important work, so spend a few minutes a week filling it out until you're done.
2. Gather your papers.
It doesn't do any good to have your affairs in order, all of your important papers filed, and your beneficiaries up-to-date if no one knows where to find your records. The first part of the aptly named "Really Important Stuff Worksheet" lists the documents you'll need to unearth to complete this task. Crack open the filing cabinet and get to it!
3. Be a legal eagle.
Your first step is to record important details about legal documents. If you don't have these documents yet, here's your opportunity to put your estate in working order. The three biggies are:
- Your will. Your will details exactly what happens to your property (and your minor dependents) when you die. We recommend you see an attorney. It won't cost you too much, and you'll get it done quickly and correctly. If you opt for pre-printed, fill-in-the-blank forms and software, be sure they are current and conform to the laws of your state. And make sure to update your will after major life events (birth, death, marriage, divorce, large inheritance, lottery payoff) and when you move to a different state.
- Your living will (aka advance medical directive). This says you want the right to die a natural death, free of all costly, extraordinary efforts to keep you alive when your life can only be sustained by artificial means. This document is available free at virtually every hospital in the nation, as well as from estate-planning attorneys.
- A durable power of attorney and medical power of attorney (aka health-care proxy). These documents allow a person who you select to make decisions on your behalf -- financial and legal in the first case, medical in the second case -- when you are incapacitated. We suggest you see an attorney for these, too.
4. Update your property title and the beneficiary information for your IRA, retirement plan, and insurance policy.
Not everything will pass to your loved ones via a will. Some assets (such as real estate, residences, taxable investment accounts, and checking accounts) may be owned as joint tenancy property. If that's the case, when you die they will pass outside of your will to the joint owner. Assets such as retirement accounts and life insurance policies require a designated beneficiary or two. Those proceeds will go to the designated persons on the owner's death, which means your will won't govern the distribution of these assets -- even if it includes directions about them.
5. Leave a paper trail.
If something happened to you today, would your loved ones know where to find your important paperwork? How to contact your lawyer? Where to find your checking account, IRA, life insurance policy, and safe-deposit box? This uplifting task is the final one to complete on the "Really Important Stuff Worksheet."
For more on getting your estate in order, read about:
- How you can plan your estate in 60 seconds.
- What you have to do before you die.
- Common beneficiary form mistakes people make.
- The truth about living trusts.
- The 10 estate planning documents you must have.