As some of you know, my father-in-law passed away a little over a year ago. I’m not the first person to lose a family member but when I experience something new, I look back and try to learn from it. Some of my most influential life lessons have been due to negative experiences. Losing a family member can be emotionally devastating but there are steps you can take to simplify the estate process. At RSWA, we’ve helped many clients navigate the loss of a parent or spouse, so I thought I was prepared. It’s funny how you can delude yourself. Even though I knew the process there was a lot I learned, and I thought sharing those lessons may help someone else.
The lessons I learned:
- Planning is Key
- Choosing Your Team
- Plan Your Funeral
- Planning for Estate Expenses
- Mapping Out Your Assets
- Getting Organized
- Communicating Your Wishes
- Help Prepare Your Spouse
- A Few “How to Be a Better Human Being” Lessons
My first lesson was the importance of planning. As a Financial Planner, this shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. End of life planning is difficult and many of us procrastinate the difficult. If you take the time, you can make the process easier for yourself when you lose someone. You can also help your family that you will someday leave behind. The most important suggestion I can make is to talk about your wishes. I know it can be a complicated subject, but death is a part of life. If you don’t plan for it, you will be leaving your loved ones with a very heavy burden.
Sometimes this happens a little haphazardly, but the more thoughtful you can be the better. It would be helpful if you had the services of an estate attorney, accountant, financial advisor and someone to be your power-of-attorney and executor. The estate attorney will draft your will, power-of-attorney, both medical and financial, and all the other legal documents you will need. An accountant can help with your taxes now, tax planning for your estate and especially your estate’s tax filings. Your financial advisor can help with your investments, but can also quarterback your team, assist you during the planning, and help your executor during the processing of your estate. 0ften one of the more difficult decisions is choosing who to act as your power-of-attorney and your executor. These jobs can be time-consuming and complicated. Discuss with them what the responsibilities entail to make sure they are willing and able to perform the duties.
Yes, this is difficult, but the last thing you want is for your family to be sitting around the kitchen table the day they lose you, wondering what you wanted. What funeral home do you want to use, do you want to be cremated or not, do you want a funeral mass? Is there a specific reading or song you’d like, is there something meaningful to you? You may be thinking “I’ll be dead, so I don’t care.” Well, your loved ones will be alive and grieving your passing. Make the decisions so they don’t have to. If talking about it’s too difficult, write it all down and make sure someone knows where the plan is. Make sure there are liquid funds that are accessible once you’re gone to pay for the funeral. Funerals can be expensive; a quick Google search shows the average cost of a funeral is between seven and nine thousand dollars.
There will be other expenses due before your estate settles. Make sure there is someone who has access to your funds. The attorney who will execute your will and other household expenses will need to be paid. If you’re a couple, the surviving spouse can take care of all this. But if you’re single, make sure you have someone who can gain access to your money to cover your expenses once you’re gone. It can take months to go through the estate process and during that time there will be expenses. If your accounts are all titled in only your name, they will be inaccessible until an executor is formally recognized by the court. If you’ve named someone as your power-of-attorney, they won’t continue to have that authority once you die. A power-of-attorney only has that power while you’re alive. Discuss the plan to cover your expenses with the person you’ve named as executor of your will. Being an executor can be time-consuming and difficult. You don’t want to add to the burden by leaving your executor to pay for your expenses due to limited planning on your part.
You can start the planning by sitting down with an estate attorney and mapping out your assets and where you want those assets to go. Not only who will get what, but also when they will get them. You don’t want to leave a large sum of money outright to your 10-year-old grandchild. You may also not want to leave a large sum of money outright to your 40-year-old child. The point is, you must plan this out and a reputable estate attorney is the place to start. In this process, you will decide what happens to your assets, you will name an executor, who will be in charge of the process, and you can make provisions for what happens if you become unable to take care of yourself as you age. None of this is fun, but with some planning, you can make the decisions for yourself and your assets. This will assure that you’re taken care of and that your assets end up where you want them, taking the burden of decisions off your family. During this process don’t forget about personal property, especially if you want that property to go to a specific person.
Once you have your estate plan in place, there are a few other organizational items that will make things easier on your executor. Have copies of your will and any trusts or other estate documents available for your executor. Make a list of your bank and investment accounts, household bills, credit cards, etc. List anything that will need to be paid, canceled and/or processed if you become unable to on your own or after your passing. Include online logins and passwords, make sure this list is available if needed but safe until then. Include on the list insurance plans, safe deposit boxes, pensions and other forms of income still due to you. Also include names and contact information for important people that will be able to assist your executor, including your financial advisor, your insurance agent, your estate attorney, and your accountant. Consider if you have other valuable items such as stock certificates or collectibles that your executor should know about.
Sit down with your spouse, your children and/or other important people in your life and talk about your wishes. It can be uncomfortable to discuss what will happen with your assets after you die, but it’s important to do. Better to have the difficult discussions than to have your wishes unknown and cause unintended family strife after you’re gone. You may be making assumptions that aren’t true, your family may be doing the same. If you sit down and discuss everything, then everyone is on the same page. Everyone doesn’t have to like your wishes, but it’s important for them to know and understand them.
One lesson I learned wasn’t specifically about the estate process but about moving on after death. In most families one person handles the day to day finances and my father-in-law was that person. Because of that, he was the primary cardholder and my mother-in-law was the secondary cardholder on their credit cards. This seems like it wouldn’t be an issue until you realize that the primary cardholder is the one who is building a credit history. After being married for 50+ years and having credit accounts through most of that time, my mother-in-law didn’t have a credit history. We had to cancel the credit cards because my father-in-law was the primary account holder and my mother-in-law couldn’t get credit in her name. This seems crazy when I think about the fact that my college-aged children get credit card promotions almost every week, but it’s still true. To protect yourself from this, each spouse should have a credit card in their name. You can be each other’s secondary account holder, but you should each be building a credit history. This isn’t to promote using credit cards and carrying an ongoing balance, but they are very convenient and almost essential for things like purchasing items online and renting cars.
I also learned a few “how to be a better human being” lessons. Showing up is important. If you’re wrestling with “to go” or “not to go” to a wake or a funeral, just go. When you lose someone, it’s a scary, emotional time and sometimes seeing a friendly face or a kind smile can make the difference. A hug can be a gift. Second, food is important. During that first week, we were so busy and so distracted. We had several neighbors drop food off on our steps. We came home after a long day of trying to make decisions that we weren’t sure were the right ones and there on our steps was dinner. We didn’t even realize that we hadn’t eaten or how hungry we were. Little things like this make a difference. Third, like everything else grieving is a process. You think you have it licked and then something sets you back. For me, it was becoming a partner at RSWA. My father-in-law and I were close, and he was always in my corner. He would have loved this, and it struck me that I couldn’t share that with him. It set me back a bit.
As I said, I try to learn from any new experience, and I have from this one. It’s started conversations with my mother-in-law and with my parents. We’ll be more prepared the next time. Well, at least for the estate process, because we’re doing some of the work now. I hope this makes you think about some steps you can take to make this easier for yourself and your family. At RSWA, we help our clients prepare and coordinate their estate plan. We are proud to be part of this process with our clients and would be happy to share our experiences with you.