The tragic events over the past week from the terrorist attack in Boston to the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas have had a permanent effect on many lives. These events provide a vivid illustration how life can change forever in an instant and may have caused you to think about what would happen if something unexpected happened in your life. As an estate planning attorney I see on a much too regular basis the aftermath of the “unexpected” and what happens when people are not prepared. Being prepared is not something you do for yourself, being prepared is something you do for those you love. The following are 7 key points for you to consider, some legal and some just practical, to help make sure you are prepared.
- Who will raise your children? If something happens to you, who do you want to raise your children. If you don’t have guardians named in a valid will, the Probate Court with make that decision for you. The Court may chose the same person you would but maybe not. Many times, the desire to designate who raises their children if they are no longer around is the motivating factor when I prepare a will for younger people.
- What are your assets? While it may be obvious that you own a house and a car, your other assets may not be as apparent. Do you have investment accounts, certificates of deposits, savings account in a bank where you lived 10 years ago, do you have 25 ounces of gold hidden in the rafters of your basement or did you loan someone $5,000 and have them sign a promissory note to insure you are paid back? People are usually very confidential about their financial affairs and many times others just don’t know all of your assets. Having a list of your major assets is a very good idea. It does not have to be elaborate, just a simple list of the asset (e.g. savings account, certificate of deposit, bond, mutual fund, etc.) and where they are located would be extremely useful.
- What do you owe? Again – if someone is trying to figure out what to do if you are not around, having an idea of your legal debts is a very helpful. Do you have a mortgage on your home, an equity line, a personal note you signed when you borrowed money from a friend or family member? You don’t need anything complex, just a list of your major liabilities.
- Who are your advisors? Does the person who will be handling your affairs after you are gone (or while you are alive but incompetent) have any idea who you go to for advice? You should have a list of people you would want them to contact if something happened to you. Your list should include the name and phone number for your attorney, financial advisor, insurance agent, clergy, a business partner and anyone else you think they could benefit from calling.
- What happens to your stuff? What do you want to happen to everything you have accumulated when you are no longer here? Does it go equally to your children? Nothing to your children? To your spouse? To your barber? If you don’t have a will or perhaps a trust which directs how your assets are distributed, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has one for you. Making sure your property passes to those you chose does not happen automatically – you have to prepare by making your intentions known through a validly executed will or trust.
- Do others now your personal stories? There are many things about your life that others do not know which may be of interest to your family and friends. These do not have to be earth shattering events (e.g. did you know I was the first person to walk on the moon) but can be uniquely personal. What is a question you wish you could ask a parent or friend who is no longer alive? On a personal note, I grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio that had a very old, large barn. I literally spent thousands of hours in that old barn milking cows during high school and college. I have no idea when that barn was built. My father would know, but he is not around to ask. I can’t believe I never asked him that question. What questions do you think people may want to know about your life but forgot to ask? You should consider writing them down in a journal to leave a legacy for those who follow.
- Where are all the above documents located? Taking the steps set forth above is not that useful if no one can find the documents. Everyone should have a file, a drawer or a box which either has all the documents or instructions on how to find them. While no one needs to see the contents of this box until the appropriate time, make sure someone knows that it exists. A simple “If anything were to happen to me you need to look in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet ( or wherever your items are located) for the documents you should review.”
The above are some of the more important things you can do to prepare your family for an unexpected event. Gwen Morgan has prepared a “What if Workbook” that is an excellent resource to review. You can find out more information about the What if Workbook at http://www.whatifworkbook.com/.
If you are not prepared for the unexpected you should consider implementing the above steps; someday (hopefully a long time from now) your family will be thankful you did.