I promised a list of the important documents you will need before you die…the real bucket list.
You cannot simply to sign a bunch of papers establishing an estate plan and other end-of-life instructions. You also have to make your heirs aware of them and leave the documents where they can be found and utilized.
Consider this: At least 10 states have been investigating whether some of the country’s largest insurers are failing to pay out unclaimed life policies to beneficiaries. California and Florida have held public hearings on the issue in recent weeks.
Of course the insurers say they are behaving lawfully. Under policy contracts, they aren’t required to take steps to determine if a policyholder is still alive, but instead pay a claim only when beneficiaries come forward. If you don’t have the information, they are not going to be forthcoming.
You can avoid such problems by securing important documents and telling your family where they are stored.
The financial consequences of failing to keep your documents in order can be significant. According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, state treasurers currently hold $32.9 billion in unclaimed bank accounts and other assets. (You can search for unclaimed assets at MissingMoney.com .)
Most experts recommend creating a comprehensive folder of documents that family members can access in case of an emergency, so they aren’t left scrambling to find and organize a hodgepodge of disparate bank accounts, insurance policies and brokerage accounts.
You can store the documents with your attorney, lock them away in a safe-deposit box or keep them at home in a fireproof safe that someone else knows the combination to.
That isn’t to say you should keep everything. Sometimes people hold onto so many papers that loved ones can’t find the important ones easily.
“It would have been a total nightmare if we hadn’t gone through it all with her,” Ms. Bissler says. “It was that Depression-era stuff where you keep everything and hide other things.” Ms. Bissler estimates that having the documents organized ahead of time spared them from ordering an additional 15 copies of the death certificate and “years” of time.
Here is a rundown of the most important documents you’ll need to have signed, sealed and delivered. You should start collecting these as soon as possible and update them every few years to reflect changes in assets and preferences. Some—such as copies of tax returns or recent child-support payments—need to be updated more often than others.
An original will is the most important document to keep on file.
A will allows you to dictate who inherits your assets and, if your children are underage, their guardians. Dying without a will means losing control of how your assets are distributed. Instead, state law will determine what happens.
Wills are subject to probate—legal proceedings that take inventory, make appraisals of property, settle outstanding debt and distribute remaining assets. Not having an original document means this already-onerous process could be much more of an ordeal, since family members can challenge a copy of a will in court.
A revocable living trust can be changed anytime during your lifetime. After you transfer ownership of various assets to the trust, you can serve as the trustee on behalf of beneficiaries you designate. Provided you do so, there aren’t any ongoing fees.
If your family can’t find the original trust documents, you are “basically setting your estate up for litigation.
A “letter of instruction” can be a useful supplement to a will, though it doesn’t hold legal weight. It is a good way to make sure your executor has the names and contact information of your attorneys, accountants and financial advisers. While the will should be stored with your attorney or in a courthouse, the letter of instruction should be more readily accessible, particularly if it contains instructions on funeral arrangements.
Also, make sure your heirs have access to a durable financial power-of-attorney form. Without it, no one can make financial decisions on your behalf in the event that you are incapacitated.
I will provide more in the next blog!
to your success…