This checklist was created to help you organize your affairs. Your individual situation will dictate other items which may need to be addressed. We suggest discussing your plans with the executor of your will as well as consulting with your legal, financial, and tax advisors. The time to get these professionals involved is before an event occurs – plan ahead. If you wait, chances are the lack of preparation may cost you and your heirs more money, time, and frustration.
Things You Can Do to Help Get Your Affairs in Order
Make or update your will. A will allows you to determine what happens to your money and possessions when you die. Otherwise, state laws and courts will make those decisions for you.
Be sure you have an up to date healthcare advance directive. This document can speak for you by outlining the medical procedures you want taken if you become too ill to state your wishes yourself. Make sure a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) release is included so that those you designate can be given information.
Create durable powers of attorney. These documents allow you to appoint someone to make decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated. There are two types: one to deal with your personal, legal and financial affairs, and another to deal with health-care decisions (health care proxy).
Consider your charitable intent. Charitably minded people may want to include a gift to their favorite charities through their estate. It is a wonderful way to create a lasting legacy. It is helpful if you let the recipient know of your future gift, and how you would like the gift to be used.
Create a letter of instruction. This document provides a list of instructions for your survivors to follow. For example, it can spell out your funeral wishes, people to contact, and where your will and other key papers can be found. It also can provide information about your financial accounts and activities.
Create a net-worth statement, including life insurance proceeds. If you have substantial net worth, consider talking to a tax and or financial advisor to determine steps necessary to minimize or eliminate the impact of federal and state estate taxes. This will help your heirs, including your spouse, know what you have (and indicate where your assets are held).
Establish a trust if it’s appropriate. A trust is a legal entity that holds property designated by you for the benefit of you and your beneficiaries. These are usually created for those you believe need help, for one reason or another (e.g., immaturity, addictions, health issues, incapacity).
Review your IRA, 401(k), and other retirement plans for beneficiary arrangements and benefits. These need to be coordinated with your will and trusts.
Verify account ownership and beneficiary designations. Check financial accounts and insurance policies to make sure these conform to your estate planning arrangements. Insurance plans should list a beneficiary and a contingent beneficiary as well because they too pass outside of a will.
If you don’t name a beneficiary, or if the beneficiary is deceased, a court could be left to decide the fate of your funds. Unfortunately, a judge who is unaware of your situation, beliefs, or intent is unlikely to make the same decision you would have made.
Update your life insurance needs. Life insurance provides an immediate source of cash that can be exempt from federal and state income taxes (but, in general, not estate taxes). It is important to review your ownership, beneficiary, and coverage amount every two or three years to make sure your policies still reflect your needs and wishes.
Review your health/medical insurance. There are three major types of coverage that help protect and stretch your assets:
Long-Term Care – enables you to cover the cost of long-term health care in your home or at a long-term care facility
Major Medical – protects you against the rising cost of medical care
Disability – helps protect your income if you can no longer work
Organizing Financial Records
Create a list of:
Financial accounts. List account numbers and pertinent information about your investments, bank accounts, insurance policies (life, disability, homeowners) credit card accounts, and other financial holdings.
The location of valuable documents. Your list should include tax records, deeds, car titles, military records, birth and marriage certificates, divorce decrees, and estate planning documents.
Your personal data. This can include your Social Security number, driver’s license number, VA claim number, your date of birth, and the names and phone numbers of family members.
Passwords. If you store any of the above information on your computer, make a list of all passwords and note where the information can be found.
Arrange access to your safe deposit box. In many states, safe deposit boxes are closed upon death and are not opened until probate. Also, make sure copies of your will and other important documents are available outside of your safe deposit box.
Loan payments. This listing should include information about credit cards, mortgages, consumer loans, auto and personal loans.
Income sources and government benefits. This includes pensions, military benefits and Social Security.
Make a list of all organizations in which you have membership. They may provide special death benefits and should be noted for your survivors to contact if appropriate. For example, the Knights of Columbus has a $2,000 death benefit that comes with your membership.
Make it easier on those you are entrusting to help you
Give a trusted family member or friend the location of confidential or valuable items you may have put away for safekeeping. Provide them with the location of spare keys and security codes.
Provide easy access to your will and your durable powers of attorney. Keep signed, original copies in your attorney’s office as well as a copy in a fireproof file at home. Also give a signed copy to your executor.
Staying as organized as possible with your paperwork is a wonderful gift for your loved ones. Planning ahead and making them aware of your wishes will demonstrate how much you care for them and set an example for their families.
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