20 May 2015

Facing Mortality: Get those documents in order

My housemate's mother passed away in July 2014 and my housemate is acting as the estate's personal representative. This post is inspired by her experience.

Four (mostly) simple things you can do help organize your paperwork for estate planning/ other emergencies:

1. Make a Will: Find an attorney who specializes in estate planning for your county (or at least state). If you don't have experience with attorneys or law-firms, don't be intimidated. They (for the most part) want to help you find someone who is a good fit (both in terms of what you can afford to spend and what their expertise is). Call around, just like you would for any other professional and ask for referrals from friends. Find out in advance what they charge and be up front about your own budget. Don't put this off-- it may take several calls to find the person who is right for you. 

If you cannot afford an attorney, check with your local bar association and see if there are any pro-bono services available. If English is not your first language, evaluate your situation/fluency and consider hiring a bilingual attorney.

Making a will may take only one or two visits. The first to talk through what you want and the second to review the papers and sign them.

You can make a simple will without the use of an attorney; however, while it seems simpler up front, it might be letting your heirs and personal representatives in for headaches down the road.

The reason to go to an up-to-date attorney is the same reason you take your car in for regular maintenance and oil changes-- to prevent problems down the line. If you do make your own will, research the rules for your local area, try visiting some pro-bono law clinics, see if there are any standard forms that you can use or if there are particular rules you need to follow.

Ask the attorney what they need from you to make your will. You will likely need: 
  • Basic biographical information about you (and your spouse/children if you have them). 
  • A list of any real property you own (real property is usually things like cars and homes). 
  • Possibly a list of bank accounts or basic banking information. 
  • Two people who are willing to be your personal representatives--a primary and a backup, in case something happens to the primary after/at the same time as you die. 
  • If you have pets, the name(s) of the people who will be inheriting them. 
  • If you have minor children, the name(s) of the people who will become their legal guardians. 
2. Contact the people who you would like to have take on the major responsibilities for you once you die. If you do not have pets or children, you likely need just 2 folks (your main personal representative and a back up).

If you have pets, ask a friend or family member to be willing to 'inherit' them and put that information in your will. Note, if you have the resources to give your pet's new family a monetary bequest for future expenses that is something to consider. Follow your lawyer’s advice on this. Note that if you have children the pets and children will likely want to stay together so things could get complicated. These are all good scenarios to run by your lawyer.

If you have minor children, ask someone to be willing to step in as their guardian if something should happen to you. Don't depend on having your spouse outlive you, have a backup.

3. Follow through: Get the will drawn up and tell your personal representatives where it is being kept. If possible show them where you are going to keep it. 

Note: do not store your will in a safe deposit box at the bank.  Your personal representative won't be able to get to unless they are signers on the account as well. In some county courts you can place a copy on file with the court for a fee-- ask your attorney for advice on will storage.

4. Gather the following information and put it with your will:
  • A copy of your address book with notes about how these people know you (or at least calling out the names of people that you really want to make sure find out you have passed away before they read about it in the newspaper). 
  • The title deed for your car (you know you aren't supposed to be keeping that in the glovebox-- right?) 
  • Any living wills / organ donation information / powers of attorney / or other legal documents that might go into effect under certain conditions. 
  • A basic list of your major assets. Major assets include: house, car, bank, accounts, savings bonds, insurance polices, and etc... 
  • Your funeral plans. If you have prepaid for a service and burial it is important for your personal representative to know that. Likewise, if you have strong preference for a certain type of service be clear about it. Note: your personal representative will be limited in what they can do, if you do not pre-plan things. If you want an elaborate funeral with all the trimmings, start saving now-- the cost of it will come out of the estate, but only if the money is available. You can start simple with this and add to it over time. 
If you are feeling really motivated:
  • A list of all personal property valued over $100 (or ask your attorney what the inventory rules are for your local area and follow that). Anything from appliances to wedding rings can be listed. If you have receipts or appraisals for these items put them somewhere safe and note where they are (this is the kind of paperwork that might go in a safe deposit box). 
  • A list of your computer passwords for social media / email / electronic accounts / your primary computing devices. Note: don't keep the passwords and account names on your computer or in the cloud. This is a good time for paper and pencil (pencil so you can update it as you change your passwords). 
If you are feeling daunted by all this, break it up in to small steps-- but do the will part as soon as possible. It is really easy for days to turn into months to turn into years.

If you need a motive for doing the Gathering of the Paperwork that isn't your own death (because, lets face it, who wants to think about their own death more than necessary?) think of it as preparing for an emergency. If you give a copy of your address book to a friend, or out of state family member, they can be your phone tree if something major happens in your area and communications are cut-off or restricted. You only have to make one call/ text/ email and your point of contact can let all of your friends and family know you are okay. If, at the same time, you make an additional copy and stick it with your will then you are ahead of the game. Put a date in your calender and update this information once a year.

Same goes for a personal property inventory. The first time you do it it might take a while (and it might be worth doing just one room at a time), but if you limit yourself to only things valued at $100.00 or more and further limit it by things you are planning to keep long term, it will be a much shorter list than All of the Things You Currently Own and much more manageable. Then, once a year, get it it out and update it. Making this list will save your personal representative time and aggravation and, if non-death disaster strikes, your insurance company with have something to work from. To top it off, if you make the list, rather than leaving it to your personal representative, then you will have an opportunity to jot down notes about who should get first dibs on certain of your belongings-- guidance that your personal representative will be grateful for.

If you are feeling really ambitious try the system developed by Erik Dewey. His Big Book of Everything is free and he started the project after having to sort through his father's papers after his father died unexpected at age 65.

In summary: if you don't have a will-- get one done in the next 2 months. If you've had a will for a while consider having it reviewed and updated-- especially if major circumstances have changed (minor children now adults, a move, a divorce, etc...). 

Once your will is up to date, set aside a little time each month in the coming year to round up your essential personal papers. If you can afford a small, fireproof safe that can be a good central location for documents you need to keep at the house. Start a filing system and start filling in the blanks-- by this time next year you will be in maintenance mode.

There is a lot of information out on the internet that can help you if you get stuck or have questions-- just make sure that you get actual legal advice from lawyers versed in estate law for your area.

Time line/ checklist (for those who need a plan):
  • First business day after reading this: Call the people who you would like to have be personal representatives / guardians of minor children / inheritors of pets (your estate team) and ask them if they are willing to take on the job if needed. The first people you ask may not be the ones you end up with-- this is why you ask before putting them in your will. 
  • Once you have your people, find your law firm / attorney. Try to do this within a week of talking to your estate team. 
  • End of the first month: have scheduled an appointment with your chosen firm. Follow their instructions and gather up the information and permissions you need for your will. 
  • End of the second month: have your will signed and done. While the attorney is working toward that, spend some time on gathering your supporting documents, chatting with your estate team, and answering any questions your attorney has. 
Once your will is signed, find a safe place to keep it, tell your personal representative, and sit back in the knowledge of a job well (mostly) done.

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