"Happy anniversary, honey! I thought we'd celebrate by filling out our do-not-resuscitate forms!"
Contemplating your mortality -- or, worse, that of your sweetheart -- is hardly the most romantic way to pledge your everlasting love. But failing to plan for life's inevitabilities will ruin more than just one romantic day for the people you love. Remember, even if you're not around, someone still has to pay the electric bill, review the homeowner's insurance coverage when it's up for renewal, and (sorry for the reality slap) take over your affairs if you become unable to.
The ultimate gift you can give your loved ones is peace of mind. Give it to them by making sure these five important "to dos" are done.
1. Fill out a living will (a.k.a. an advance medical or health-care directive).
A living will is one of two critical estate-planning forms that empowers others to make decisions on your behalf when you can't because of incapacitation -- temporary or otherwise. (The other form is No. 2 on our list.) A living will tells your doctor how you want critical life support issues handled. (A do-not-resuscitate order is a separate simple form.)
Where to get it: Your doctor, local hospital, or senior center. Online, find your state medical association website via ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/7630.html or at the U.S. Living Will Registry (http://www.uslivingwillregistry.com/forms.shtm) and download, fill out, and file a living will. To include more detailed health-care instructions with your living will, see agingwithdignity.org and caringinfo.org.
2. Establish a durable power of attorney for finances.
This ensures your affairs don't fall into disarray when you're not conscious. You can even set it to kick in as soon as you're put under any medically necessary mind-altering anesthetic, to avoid legal pickles requiring your doctor and family to prove incapacity.
Where to get it: Many state medical association websites (see the link above) carry durable power of attorney forms. If not, ask your doctor, local hospital, or senior center for the proper form, or contact a lawyer. If your financial dealings are limited to a few institutions, you can also use their in-house power of attorney forms.
You can hire a lawyer to do the legwork for about $200 to $400. Or you can go the DIY route. If you choose the latter, remember to:
- Sign the forms the right (legal) way: The best insurance is for both you and your agent (the person you've chosen to act on your behalf) to sign the forms in front of a notary.
- Provide a plan B: Name primary and contingent agents on each form. If you and your spouse are in an accident, or if your agent cannot be contacted, a court will have to appoint a conservator or guardian, wasting precious time.
- Change your mind the right way: To alter these forms, you'll need to revoke the existing ones and destroy all copies. There are revocation documents available, or you can type out your wishes (e.g., "I revoke my existing health-care directive from [date] and will execute a new one") and sign in front of two witnesses and a notary.
3. Leave instructions on how to keep Our Family, Inc., running smoothly.
Does "date night" in your household entail clearing off the dining room table hand in hand for a romantic evening of paying the bills, reconciling receipts with your bank statements, or rebalancing your portfolio or doing your taxes via candlelight? Didn't think so. Still, somehow all those things get done.
It's not uncommon for one partner to take the lead managing the financial chores. Still, more than one person under the roof needs to know how to keep the lights on and where to send the check to fund that year's IRA.
If you are the family CEO, schedule 30 minutes to get your next of kin in the loop so that they can take over with ease at a moment's notice. Use this as an excuse to get organized. Consider automating the process (bill payments, investments, etc.) to make it easier for the partner who doesn't regularly handle financial issues to keep the home fires burning in your absence.
4. Update your beneficiary form designations.
We hope your honey knows how to spell your name right, and hopefully did so when they filled out the beneficiary forms for their assets. Still, many people get this basic task all wrong by committing one of these common beneficiary form boo-boos.
If you haven't checked on your beneficiary form designations lately -- and particularly if you've gotten married, unmarried, had kids, lost a spouse, etc. -- put this on your must-do list. Any assets disbursed outside a will or not accounted for in a trust require a beneficiary designation. Your hit list should include:
- Retirement accounts: IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, 457s, pensions, and self-employment retirement plans (e.g., Keoghs).
- Banking services: Credit unions, checking accounts, and savings accounts.
- Insurance proceeds: Disability and life insurance policies.
- Other stuff: Annuities and financial services products.
Also, have a Plan B. If your primary beneficiary isn't around to collect, and no secondary beneficiary is named, the court decides who gets the dough. Be exact. You can name multiple primary and secondary beneficiaries, so don't be afraid to spell out how you want your assets divided.
Ironclad beneficiary forms, durable powers of attorney, and health-care directives are particularly important for those who aren't legally bound in the eyes of the law. Though many of the same estate planning and medical directive rights are available to unmarried couples, the difference is that they don't happen automatically. You've got to fill out the paperwork to make your wishes legal.
5. At the very least, set up a simple will.
Beneficiary forms may be enough to settle your estate, particularly if the laws in your state handle the dispersal of your assets, property, offspring, and Beanie Baby collections to your liking. However, before you declare "mission accomplished," check your state's probate laws to see how estates are handled. (Visit ncsconline.org/d_kis/info_court_web_sites.html for a list of state court websites.)
The last thing you want your loved ones to do after your death is worry about covering the next month’s expenses -- let alone the rest of a lifetime’s. Without the proper legal papers in place, that's exactly what could happen to the families of the more than half of Americans who don't have a will on record.
To save your survivors from headaches, getting a will is the way to go. A will can ensure faster access to assets for your loved ones and less time and money spent on legal fees. It identifies the person you've chosen as executor for your estate, beneficiaries (the people and organizations you want to inherit your assets), guardians for your children, and a property guardian to manage assets left to the little ones until they're grown up. It lets you orchestrate the payment of debts and taxes and tells the court to provide a living allowance to your survivors during the probate process. A will also lets you leave assets to non-relatives, unregistered domestic partners, charities, or organizations that wouldn't be recognized as beneficiaries under state law alone.
A simple will (such as those of the DIY variety) can be adequate if you're confident your estate won't be contested, you own property worth less than the estate tax exemption amount, you have very basic estate-planning needs, and you have no kids (or vindictive exes) from previous marriages. If you do not meet all of those criteria, it's best to consult a lawyer. In the meantime, at least compose a simple will: It's better than nothing, and we promise it will earn you karma points in the afterlife.
(Bonus Tip!) 6. Don't forget to reveal your secret hiding place for all those important papers.
Don't let your lovingly prepared plans for incapacitation or death go unnoticed. The worst thing you can do is to keep your plans secret. Make copies of all your important papers (including your directions on how to run the household finances) and tell your executor and your loved ones where they're kept.
To help them remember exactly how thoughtful you've been, include in your important papers a list of delightful vignettes from your life to frequently and publicly share after you're gone.
Dayana Yochim is the Fool’s consumer-finance expert, and a frequent "phone a friend" and "referee" for couple friends in financial tight spots.