"And now, the end is near;
And so I face the final curtain.
Regrets, I've had a few;
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.
I planned each charted course;
Each careful step along the byway,
But more, much more than this,
I did it my way."
-- "My Way," by Jacques Reveaux, Claude Francois, Paul Anka
Frank Sinatra has long been admired for his unique voice and his place in American music history, but permit me to offer another reason to admire him: his financial planning.
All of us know that we need to give some thought to how we want to wrap up our lives and legacies, financially speaking. We know we need to make a will, for example. But wills can be contested, and your estate can end up mired in probate for a year or more, losing some (or much!) of its value as various fees are levied. If you take some time to plan carefully, you can avoid many headaches and be confident that your wishes will ultimately be carried out.
Clever Mr. Lennon
Consider the instructive case of Jackie Onassis, for example. She was an extremely private woman, and yet it appears that her estate planners may have failed her, since her very detailed will ended up fully available for public perusal. That's not unusual -- wills are generally available for public consumption. A little poking around online will yield many famous people's wills, such as a simple one for Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, leaving most of his billions to his charitable foundation.
So we now know that Mrs. Onassis left $25,000 to so-and-so and $500,000 to so-and-so, as well as how she disposed of various real estate and works of art, such as her Indian miniature, "Lovers watching rain clouds." I suspect she might have been mortified by all these public revelations. It didn't have to be this way, though. The rich and powerful (and others who plan carefully) can often keep most of their wishes private by setting up trusts.
Other celebrities who managed to keep most of their final financial secrets include John Lennon. Here's a snippet of his will, revealing that much of his estate was in a trust:
THIRD: I give, devise, and bequeath all the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, wheresoever situate, to the Trustees under a Trust Agreement dated November 12, 1979, which I signed with my wife YOKO ONO, and ELI GARBER as Trustees, to be added to the trust property and held and distributed in accordance with the terms of that agreement and any amendments made pursuant to its terms before my death.
Interestingly, the trust appears to have been set up just a year before he died -- reminding us that it's best not to put off this kind of planning.
Someone with an even more regrettable will than Mrs. Onassis was former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger, whose 176-word will in 1995 was so insufficient (not addressing taxes, for example, and not giving his executors specific powers) that thousands of his estate's dollars were spent on lawyers to help clear things up.
' Green Eyes
Then there's Frank Sinatra. Like Elvis Presley (and even, ironically, John F. Kennedy), he took advantage of trusts to keep many of his financial wishes private (though his will does include many details of who gets what). One interesting aspect of the will is that he specified that any heir who contested the will would be disinherited from it. A little creative thinking can solve a lot of problems, and I'm betting that Mr. Sinatra, wherever he is, probably has few regrets about his will.
He seems to have been financially shrewd in other matters, too, and was no stranger to stock investments. I stumbled upon a short news item from 1985, for example, that noted Sinatra's plans to sell 675,000 shares of the Golden Nugget casino -- worth, at the time, around $7.8 million. He had received the shares via "options he acquired in return for entertainment and promotional services for the casino and hotel company." (Golden Nugget was bought by Landry's Restaurants
Tips for you
So what should you do to get your end-game finances in shape? Begin your estate planning -- even if you're still a spring chicken. Know that you can pass assets on to your loved ones in a variety of ways, not all of which go through probate or are made public. Trusts can cost a few thousand dollars to set up, but they may be worth it, since the probate process is capable of eating up much more than that. (One estimate I've seen projects that a $400,000 estate might have $20,000 eaten up by probate costs.) Another way is to set up bank accounts so that your assets are directly transferred or paid to a specified person or persons upon your death, bypassing probate. Many brokerages in many states also offer "transfer-on-death" features on accounts.
Here's another handy fact if you're planning to pass along some stock to your loved ones. With a gift of appreciated stock or property, the cost basis (for tax purposes) is the same for the receiver of the gift as it was for the giver. For example, imagine that you give your daughter your 600 shares of Valero Energy that you bought a few years ago for about $10 per share. Your daughter's cost basis will be $10. So if the shares are now around $70, she'll have a sizeable gain that she'll be taxed on when she sells. But with an inheritance, she would get what is called a stepped-up basis for tax purposes. In this case, the cost basis is the fair market value of the stock on the date of death of the donor. So if you bought shares of Cree when they were around $10 each and you die when they're trading for $35, if you leave them to your daughter, her cost basis will be $35. These are the kinds of issues you should explore as part of your estate planning.
While we at The Motley Fool believe that most people, if they have the time and interest, can become successful investors on their own, it's another matter when it comes to estate planning. Of course, the more you learn about it, the better. But it's risky to handle it all on your own without any professional guidance. We can help you zero in on a good advisor via our Advisor Center. And we also offer a compelling and inexpensive personal financial advising service. (This is really worth trying, in my opinion. You'll be able to ask a professional all kinds of questions, as well as be able to map out your financial future using special online tools.)
Another great way to keep on top of your estate plan and keep your retirement planning on track as well is via our Rule Your Retirementnewsletter, the retirement guidance source that I refer to most often. Try a free trial for a month and see how valuable this great resource can be for your retirement planning and investing.
These articles may also be of interest:
- Can You Retire in 2016?
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- $1 Million May Not Be Enough
- 9 Retirement Killers
Here's to your comfortable and peaceful financial future!
For more about longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian, view her bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written: The Motley Fool Money Guide and The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens . The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.