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Estate Planning Tips to Make Things Easier

Estate planning is for everyone, not just for those people who have a lot or money or a lot of assets. "Estate planning" is doing things that will help your heirs and loved ones handle the things that must be done when you die, with the least amount of problems as possible. To make things easier for those you leave behind, I suggest the following:

  • Keep a list of your current assets, and update it annually or semiannually. Often people are private in terms of finances, and are not inclined to discuss such matters-which leaves loved ones at a loss in terms of knowing what to look for and what needs to be taken care of.
  • Keep records of all stock and mutual fund purchases and sales, or transfers of assets-including dates of purchase and amounts. That information may be needed in filing tax returns, or determining the value of gifts made.
  • Keep your life insurance policies organized and in a central location. Throw out policies you already cashed surrendered, or which you have canceled. If you are not sure about the status of a policy, you can check with the company by telephone. Often, loved ones find stacks of old insurance papers, and can spend hours making calls and writing letters trying to trace current documents, only to find out that the stack you kept were canceled or cashed in ages ago.
  • If a child marries or changes her name, change your life insurance and/or pension beneficiary designations to conform. Otherwise, in trying to claim the benefits, your child may have to provide proof of her name change due to marriage. Similarly, if there is a divorce and your child has gone back to her maiden name, make the beneficiary change to conform. Usually, you can call the insurance company or pension administrator’s office to request a simple beneficiary designation change form.
  • Keep a record or short list of your health insurance information. If you need medical attention, one of the first requests is for insurance information. You may have Medicare benefits plus supplemental benefits, long-term care insurance, hospitalization, etc. Bills not covered by primary insurance may be covered by supplemental or other insurance, but claims often need to be submitted by you, or whoever is handling your affairs. Bills can’t be submitted if no one knows what insurance coverage you have.
  • If you own property or assets-real estate, bank accounts, etc.-with someone who has predeceased you, and ownership/title is still in that person’s name with your name, keep a death certificate, or at least a copy, for each such deceased individual. It often becomes difficult to recall or track down dates of death and/or a search is needed just to order a death certificate, so that your asset can be sold or transferred
  • Let a trusted family member know where you keep your safe deposit box key, and which bank your box is with. Not being able to locate a box can lead to problems, or result in needing to call every bank in town to see if a box was rented. Also, if keys cannot be located or are lost, the box must be drilled open-usually at a cost of $75 or more.
  • Tell a trusted family member where you keep your “important” papers-your Will, Power of Attorney, Living Will, car title, etc. Hide and Seek and Scavenger Hunt are fun games, but not when such important paperwork is involved. Wills cannot be recorded during someone’s lifetime, but Powers of Attorney can. A Power of Attorney can be recorded with the Recorder of Deeds Office, so if the original document is lost or destroyed but you are too ill or incapacitated to sign a new one, a guardianship can perhaps be avoided because your signed document is on file and of public record.
  • If you have a preference in terms of your funeral or burial arrangements--tell a trusted family member (preferably someone who you think will end up handling such matters for you). If you have pre-arranged or pre-paid for your arrangements, let someone know. Nothing is more perplexing and upsetting than having no idea what someone’s wishes are--and it can be particularly upsetting to set up arrangements with a funeral home for a departed loved one only to find out arrangements had been made elsewhere and prepaid.

The above is just a checklist of some practical things we can all do--in addition to having an updated Will, an updated Durable General Power of Attorney, and a Living Will--to help make things easier for our survivors.

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