1. Death – An Unpopular Subject
2. Most Survivors Are Unprepared
3. Getting Your Affairs In Order
4. Write it All Down
5. Free Gift For My Readers
6. Other Things to Think About
Overview: Death - An Unpopular Subject
No one likes to talk about death. Many people put off planning for this contingency because it’s just not pleasant to think about. Additionally, most young people think that death is a long way off, so they have plenty of time to plan for it. But as we all know, accidents happen and no one knows exactly when their time will come.
Unfortunately, loved ones are usually the hardest hit, not only by the grief of the loss, but also by having to deal with the burden of getting their loved one’s finances in order. Whether the loss is expected (in the case of an older or terminal person) or it comes as a complete surprise, there are many issues that have to be dealt with when handling an estate. That’s why it’s very important to have a plan and have all the details your loved ones will need in order to make dealing with your loss a little easier.
This week, I am going to address several important financial planning issueseveryone should consider, whether you’re young, old or somewhere in between. I will also tell you how you can receive our free e-booklet entitled, “Handing Down Your Legacy” that will help your loved ones manage your finances after death. Sadly, this is often much more of a difficult burden than most people realize.
Our new Handing Down Your Legacy is a convenient electronic document that makes it easy to put all your important information in one place. It’s also easy to update it and make changes as necessary. Continue reading to learn more, and feel free to forward this E-Letter to your family and friends who may also benefit from this useful resource.
Most Survivors Are Unprepared
Obviously, there’s the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one. If that weren’t enough, I once read that over 90% of survivors are not fully prepared to deal with the financial and other issues that come up after the death of a loved one. I certainly believe it based on my own experience in the financial services business. It’s not uncommon for loved ones to contact us without a clue about where to even get started handling the issues related to the remaining estate.
Think about all the assets, investments, insurance policies, liabilities, etc. that you own and all the details related to them. Sometimes it’s challenging for us to keep up with just our own finances. Now imagine someone else, who is already dealing with your loss, trying to come in and figure it out without the benefit of your assistance. Think of the time and research that would take, and of the things that might slip through the cracks.
This is sometimes even true with the loss of a spouse. In many cases, one spouse is the financial partner, in charge of the checkbook, investments and most importantly, filing of important papers. The other spouse may only be minimally involved, signing on the dotted line when necessary and generally knowing where important records are, but not familiar with the details.
With single people, they are often the only person who has a good grasp of their financial details. They may or may not be organized or maintain good records such that someone else could come in and easily figure out what’s going on. It can be overwhelming and things can get missed.
According to CNN Money, there is approximately $58 billion in unclaimed assets in the US. Some of it is property that no doubt went unclaimed after the owner’s death simply because the heirs were unaware that the assets even existed. After a period of time, unclaimed assets are simply turned over to the state.
There's no wonder why many survivors struggle to figure out what their loved one’s financial situation is, because they are having a hard timefinding all of it, much less sorting it out. An article I recently read (http://www.unclaimedassets.com/) estimated that as much as 25% of life insurance benefits are not paid to beneficiaries because they didn’t know a policy existed. How sad!
Getting Your Affairs in Order
Taking a little time to document the financial details that pertain to you and your family can save hours of searching, not to mention the emotional strain coming from a loved one’s having to deal with the burden, on top of the emotional strains they are already dealing with. We all know that when we’re under emotional stress, we don’t always make the best decisions.
The first step may sound too simplistic, but it is to gather your financial information intoone safe place : a locking file cabinet, safe or other suitable fire-proof storage medium. It is amazing to me how many different places financial information is kept in many families. Some have part of their information at their office, other parts at home, some in a file cabinet, some in a dresser drawer, some in all of the above, or other places that might be easily overlooked.
There are times when survivors find important documents only by accident, and sometimes many years after the death. It’s also important to weed out information on accounts, assets and insurance policies that are no longer owned. This can save your loved ones from going on a wild goose chase searching for an asset that no longer exists.
Write It All Down
Once you have all of your information in order and organized where they can find it, you should document all of this in a concise manner. This documentation will serve as a guidepost for your survivors to let them know what assets you have, where they are located and how they should be treated. It is not enough to justtell them and hope they remember. Keep in mind they’ll also be dealing with the grief of loss.
There are various methods of documenting everything your survivors will need to know. The simplest is a letter to the surviving partner detailing where all of the important papers are and how they should be handled. However, it is sometimes hard to think of everything to put into the letter, and a letter that does cover everything may be so long that it’s overwhelming.
Others keep a summary file folder along with their other important papers that contains copies of statements for assets, special instructions, important contacts, etc. The summary file approach is usually easier to update than rewriting an entire letter to address changes.
I don’t recommend either of these approaches. I have always favored a more detailed approach to keeping track of your assets and leaving instructions for your loved ones when you are gone. Fortunately, you can now document all of this information electronically, in a single concise place. Think how much easier this will make it for your loved ones.
There are various products on the market you can buy for doing so. However . . .
A Free Gift for My Readers
My firm recently developed a useful and thoughtful financial tool to help organize all of the important items necessary to pass on to loved ones in case of the death of the financial partner. It’s an electronic booklet entitled Handing Down Your Legacy, and I’m going to make it available to my readers and their family and friends free of charge.
Handing Down Your Legacy allows you to store all your important financial information in one place. We tried to think of everything that would be important for your loved ones to know. You simply enter the information, and make sure to update it as things change or if it becomes outdated. The electronic format is superior to a paper booklet or letter, in that it allows you to simply enter information into a template and change it as often as needed.
We are making this available in both a writeable PDF file and a Microsoft Word file, so you can select the best format to fit your needs. Both are easy to complete, but the Word file gives you the flexibility to add more details or include other information that may not be listed in the PDF format. You can customize it as you see fit.
Once you successfully download the e-booklet, I encourage you to complete it soon, and then let your spouse or other loved one know where it will be saved on your computer. It’s also important to make a backup copy in case of a computer malfunction, and you may even want to print out a copy and keep in a file for easy reference. Just remember that this document will contain some of your most sensitive information, so use secure passwords and if you print a copy, keep it in a safe spot.
It is also important that you review the information in your Handing Down Your Legacybooklet at least annually to make sure all information is current. Outdated records can be just as confusing as no records at all. The Microsoft Word and PDF formats make changing the information quick and easy, so keeping records updated isn’t a chore.
Other Things to Think About
While you are working on this, there are some other things you should think about:
1.Update your will. If you don’t have a will, get oneASAP. It is also very important to update your will periodically, as well as any trusts you may have established. Estate laws change periodically and differ from state to state. I recommend that you consult a competent attorney who specializes in estate planning for this, even if your estate is not expected to be large enough to trigger an estate tax.
2.Make sure all of your assets are titled correctly. The way assets are titled has an effect on how they transfer upon your death. For example, a bank account held by two people as “joint tenants” transfers differently than if it were jointly owned with “right of survivorship.” However, consult with your attorney regarding titling issues as there are some risks involved when naming other owners to your accounts.
If you have recently married, you may want to add your spouse to the account. Or, you may have remarried and want to remove an ex-spouse from the title of an asset. If you have established trusts as part of an estate plan, it will be important to make sure that any assets that are part of these trusts are also titled correctly. As I noted above, trusts can be a key element of your estate plan, and you will need a good attorney to help you.
3.Make sure contractual beneficiary designations are current. Life insurance, annuities, retirement plans and IRAs can all be transferred contractually by naming a beneficiary. This means that the proceeds are transferredoutside of the will and need not go through probate in most cases, which makes it even more important to keep these beneficiary designations updated. It is also important to name contingent beneficiaries should the primary beneficiary predecease you.
4.Make sure you have a “financial power of attorney.” A financial power of attorney simply empowers a trusted individual to manage your finances should you become incapacitated. It takes effect at such time that you can no longer handle your own financial affairs, and ceases upon your recovery or death.
5.Make your wishes known. This piece of advice is obviously not limited to financial issues, but it is vitally important to make your wishes known when transferring financial holdings or any other asset with significant value upon death. I noted above how many financial instruments can have joint ownership with right of survivorship or carry the ability to name a beneficiary. There are other items of value, however, that may not be able to be transferred as easily, such as family heirlooms, antiques, valuable collections, personal items, etc.
In those cases, it is imperative that youstate your wishes clearly in either a will or living trust. I think this is especially true today when there are so many “blended families” made up of children united by remarriage of the parents. What may be a family heirloom to one child could be a valuable commodity at the local pawnshop to another. It happens.
Another very important item to consider in this process is the disposition of financial assets. Whether those financial assets are stocks, bonds, investment or security accounts, or real estate, it is important for the financial partner to leave instructions as to how they should be handled upon death.
We often get calls from widows who are now trying to sort through the family investments and determine what they should do with them. Sometimes these callers are in a near-panic trying to make decisions about assets they know little or nothing about. It is unfortunate that even some people who list out their financial assets in great detail fail to communicate the plan behind those holdings.
Investments do not occur in a vacuum, but are usually based on a plan to meet financial goals. If communicated, the plan you set in motion during your lifetime could serve future generations. However, if only the holdings are listed, there’s a greater likelihood that assets will simply be cashed out.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, it is very important to have a way for survivors to obtain financial information upon the death of a loved one. I kept my comments very general and focused mostly on basic financial matters, since that’s what we typically encounter upon the death of one of our clients.
There are many other estate planning and family considerations to be made in addition to investments and finances, including deciding guardianship of minor children, setting up and maintaining trusts, establishing a succession plan for sole proprietors, funeral expenses, etc. However, all of these are far beyond the scope of this short E-Letter, and most require the services of a qualified attorney.
Suffice it to say that there are many financial, legal and family issues to be considered upon a person’s death. These issues can either be dealt with prior to death through careful planning with qualified professionals, or left to bereaved survivors who will have to face these issues during a period of great stress and turmoil.
I suggest you carefully consider the suggestions I have given and take steps to inform and protect your loved ones prior to your passing. I also encourage you to download our freeHanding Down Your Legacye-booklet and complete it as soon as possible. If you have a spouse who is usually not involved with financial matters, you may want to have them help you complete it. This will help communicate the importance of becoming involved in the family finances. The one thing you shoulddefinitely not do is keep it a secret.
While the subject matter of this week’s E-Letter may be less than cheerful, it is nonetheless important, especially in terms of long-term financial and estate planning. We all know that none of us are guaranteed to see tomorrow, so pre-death planning is an important consideration for anyone who wants to make it easier for their surviving loved ones. Remember that the time you take to compile this information today will help ease the burden on your loved ones when dealing with the financial matters related to your estate.
Also, since almost anyone could benefit from this information, I encourage you to forward this E-Letter to your family and friends. Then they too can benefit from this useful tool.
Very best regards,
Gary D. Halbert
© Halbert Wealth Management