Mark Twain is attributed with saying, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” This advice is commonly interpreted to mean that in prioritizing the tasks that need to be completed to achieve a goal, you should tackle the task that is hardest first. ‘Hardest’ in this context does not necessarily mean most difficult – it means hardest for you. ‘A frog’ could be something you find extremely boring to do, or a task you just don’t like to do such as filling out forms.
In my practice, I meet with clients to help them achieve their estate planning goals. A paramount goal for many clients is to make the estate settlement process as easy as possible for their loved ones when they pass away. Creating an estate plan (Will, Trust, etc.) with an experienced estate planning attorney is a critical component to achieving this goal. However, simply signing a Will, Trust, and other estate plan documents is generally not sufficient to achieve the goal of making the settlement process as easy as possible. Read on for five important tasks that you can do to make things easier for those you leave behind.
1. Review and Update your Beneficiary Designations. The owner of assets such as life insurance, retirement accounts, and annuities, may designate beneficiaries to receive these benefits when the owner dies. Beneficiaries may be individuals or Trusts. When we work with clients to create or update their estate plan, we provide written instructions for designating beneficiaries. Following that advice and properly completing and filing the forms with the financial institution or life insurance company is critical to ensuring that the estate plan works as intended. It is a good idea to confirm those beneficiary designations from time to time as well since it is not uncommon that when financial advisors move from one company to another, or when employer-sponsored retirement plans change custodians, the beneficiary designation does not carry over. Requesting written verification of your beneficiaries and maintaining that confirmation with your records is advisable.
2. Organize your Asset Information/Documentation. We work with many clients on estate and trust settlement matters who find the most frustrating aspect of this process to be their inability to find information and documentation about the decedent’s assets, debts, or benefits. To make this process easier for your family, maintain a comprehensive list of your assets including bank accounts, IRAs, brokerage accounts, life insurance, annuities and any other assets you have or that your family or estate would be entitled to receive at your death. Keeping a complete copy of a recent statement for each account with that list is extremely helpful for those who will be handling your affairs if you become incapacitated or following your death. Including contact information for advisors and agents is also very helpful.
3. Make sure your assets are properly titled in your Trust. A Trust is an excellent estate planning tool for many people because it can be used to accomplish many goals including probate avoidance and estate tax savings. However, simply creating a Trust will not in itself achieve those goals; it is necessary to “fund” the Trust by titling assets in the name of the Trust or designating the Trust as the beneficiary of assets such a life insurance. Avoiding probate really does make the estate and Trust settlement process much easier, so take that the time to fund your Trust. Your estate planning attorney should provide you with instructions for funding your Trust consistent with your estate plan.
4. Maintain an updated file with information that would be useful to your family. In addition to maintaining a file with asset information and account statements as noted above, here is some other information that will be useful for your family to have if you were suddenly unavailable:
a. A list of the bills you pay each month (i.e., mortgage, car loan, utilities) along with those paid less frequently (i.e., life insurance, real estate taxes, etc.);
b. A list of employers from whom you receive, or from whom your beneficiaries may be entitled to receive, pension or other group benefits;
c. Information regarding your health insurer, including any long-term care insurance policies;
d. A list of your active credit cards, along with any rewards programs;
e. Access information for safe deposit boxes or storage facilities;
f. A list of your online accounts, user names and passwords; and,
Home alarm codes and contact information for the alarm company.
This is not an exhaustive list, but is intended to help you start thinking about what your family would need to know. Pay attention to the tasks you handle for your household and ask yourself, what would someone need to do this?
5. Meet with your estate planning attorney every 5-7 years to review your estate plan and update it as necessary. Your estate plan is not a ‘one and done’ event. As long as you’re alive, your situation will change, the laws will change, and your goals may change. It is important that your estate plan reflect your current situation if you want your wishes to be carried out and to make settlement of your estate as easy as possible for your loved ones. Reviewing your estate plan with your attorney every 5-7 years is a good benchmark timeframe, but reviewing things more frequently may be appropriate if your situation warrants it.
Many will view the above tasks as ‘frogs’ and you are not wrong in that view! However, undertaking these tasks will go a long way toward achieving that goal of making the settlement of your estate as easy as possible for your family. So, take the advice of Mark Twain and resolve to eat one of those frogs first thing every morning until they are all gone – you (and your family) will be glad you did.
Attorney Suzanne R. Sayward is a partner with the Dedham law firm of Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC which focuses on advising its clients in the areas of estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. She is certified as an Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation, a private organization whose standards for certification are not regulated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This article is not intended to provide legal advice or create or imply an attorney-client relationship. No information contained herein is a substitute for a personal consultation with an attorney. For more information visit our website at www.ssbllc.com or call 781/461-1020.
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