Saturday, June 28, 2014

End of Life Planning is Important


This is an excerpt from Gary Halbert’s weekly newsletter, Forecast & Trends:

“Death Panels” Aside; End-of-Life Planning is Important

Read full article here: Getting Your Affairs in Order Once you have gathered all of your financial materials together in one place, it’s time to review them and get them in order. By getting them in order, I don’t mean alphabetizing them or putting them in nice neat file folders. What I mean is that you should review your overall financial situation and make sure that it reflects your current and long-term plans. Specifically, I would recommend that you do the following: 

1. Update your will. If you don’t have a will, get one ASAP. It is also very important to update your will periodically. Estate laws change periodically and differ from state to state. I recommend that you consult a competent attorney who specializes in estate planning for this, even if your estate is not expected to be large enough to trigger an estate tax. I do not recommend using do-it-yourself resources to do your will because they can never tailor a document to fit all of the intricacies of most families, and this is especially true when it comes to blended families. Plus, since estate planning law changes frequently, websites and books will not always notify you when your document needs to be revised, but a good attorney will. 

2. Make sure all of your assets are titled correctly. The way assets are titled has an effect on how they transfer upon your death. For example, a bank account held by two people as “joint tenants” transfers differently than if it were jointly owned with “right of survivorship.” However, consult with your attorney regarding titling issues as there are some risks involved when naming other owners to your accounts. In addition, it is important to keep your information current and updated. For example, if you have recently married, you may want to add your spouse to the account, unless it is intended to be separate property in community property states. Or, you may have remarried and want to remove an ex-spouse from the title of an asset. If you have established trusts as part of an estate plan, it will be important to make sure that any assets that are part of these trusts are also titled correctly. Trusts are a key element of estate plans, and you will need a good attorney to help you with this. 

3. Make sure contractual beneficiary designations are current. Life insurance, annuities, retirement plans and IRAs can all be transferred contractually by naming a beneficiary. This means that the proceeds are transferred outside of the will and need not go through probate. However, this makes it even more important to keep these beneficiary designations updated. If you have recently married, or if one or both parents are deceased, you will need to replace parents or other family members as beneficiaries of your insurance policies. Just as important, if you have divorced, you may want to remove your ex-spouse as beneficiary, unless your divorce decree requires otherwise. It is not uncommon for insurance proceeds to be paid to an ex-spouse just because a person never got around to changing the policy beneficiary. Under most retirement plans, the current spouse is required to be the beneficiary of death benefits, but this is not always the case for IRAs. Therefore, you will also want to make sure your IRA beneficiary is current. It is also important to name contingent beneficiaries should the primary beneficiary predecease you. 

4. Make sure you have a “financial power of attorney.” A financial power of attorney simply empowers a trusted individual to manage your financial affairs should you become incapacitated. It takes effect at such time that you can no longer handle your own business affairs, and ceases upon your recovery or death. In addition to the financial power of attorney, it is important to note any automatic payments you may have set up to be withdrawn from your checking account. If deposits are no longer made into the account, these automatic withdrawals could bounce, possibly affecting utilities, insurance coverage, debt payments, etc. If you pay your bills via the Internet, then it is also important to make that known, as well as the user ID and password for your financial power of attorney designee or survivor to use to access your banking information and pay bills as they become due. 

5. Make your wishes known. This piece of advice is obviously not limited to financial issues, but it is vitally important to make your wishes known when transferring financial holdings or any other asset with significant value upon death. While I have noted above how many financial instruments can have joint ownership with right of survivorship, or carry the ability to name a beneficiary, there are other items of value that may not be able to be transferred as easily, such as family heirlooms, antiques, valuable collections, personal items, etc. In those cases, it is imperative that you state your wishes clearly in either a will or living trust. I think this is especially true today when there are so many “blended families” made up of children united by remarriage of the parents. What may be a family heirloom to one child could be a valuable commodity at the local pawnshop to another. It happens. Another very important item to consider in this process is the disposition of financial assets. Whether those financial assets are stocks, bonds, investment or security accounts, or real estate, it is important for the financial partner to leave instructions as to how they should be handled upon death. We often get calls from widows who are now trying to sort through the family investments and determine what they should do with them. Sometimes these callers are in a near-panic trying to make decisions about assets they know little or nothing about. Had the financial partner left clear written instructions, this confusion could be avoided. Thus, it is critically important for the financial partner to consider the level of sophistication of the non-financial partner, and leave written instructions for the disposition of assets accordingly. Along this line, I am sad to report that survivors are often targeted by brokers and insurance salesmen and even bankers who offer financial help, but are really out to liquidate all assets and put them into products that will generate commissions or fees for them. From my experience, it is rare that every single investment should be liquidated upon the death of one partner, yet we often hear from survivors who have been given this very advice. Therefore, an important part of getting your affairs in order should include the knowledge that your survivors will likely be targeted by the financial services industry and others, so you should leave very specific instructions as to how each asset should be handled.

6. Note all important contacts. There are some who successfully go through all of the prior steps in getting their affairs in order, only to fail to make a list of important contacts for their surviving partner. This list should contain the names, addresses and phone numbers of all important contacts. From a financial perspective, these should include your bankers, brokers, insurance agent, attorney, accountant, and financial and investment advisors. You should also include user names and passwords for websites where you have made any financial or investment transactions or have accounts. This list is important because while the surviving spouse may be able to find all of the insurance policies and account statements, he or she may be totally lost as to how to proceed from there. Having a complete list of contact information will be very comforting during this time of great emotional stress for the survivors. 

Write It All Down Once you have all of your affairs in order and organized where they can be found, it is important that you document all of this in a concise manner. This documentation will serve as a guidepost for your survivors to let them know what assets you have, where they are located and how they should be treated. It is not enough to just tell the other partner about these issues and hope they remember. As the old saying goes, “a short pencil is better than a long memory.” There are various methods of documenting everything your survivors will need to know. The simplest is a letter to the surviving partner detailing where all of the important papers are and how they should be handled. However, it is sometimes hard to think of everything to put into the letter, and a letter that does cover everything may be so long that it’s overwhelming. Others keep a summary file folder along with their other important papers that contains copies of statements for assets, special instructions, important contacts, etc. The summary file approach is usually easier to update than rewriting an entire letter to address changes. I don’t recommend either of these approaches. I have always recommended a more detailed method of keeping track of your assets and leaving detailed instructions for your loved ones when you are gone. There are various products on the market for doing so. However . . . 

Back in 2005 I ran across one of the most useful and thoughtful financial tools I have ever seen to help organize all of the important items necessary to pass on to loved ones in case of an untimely death. It’s a booklet entitled ALL THEY’LL NEED TO KNOW from Emerson Publications. I was so impressed with this planning tool that I negotiated the right to reprint them and offered them to my clients and E-Letter subscribers. To put it mildly, the response was HUGE! We mailed out thousands of booklets to clients and readers, many of whom had their own stories to tell about how a previous death showed them the need for such a resource. All They’ll Need To Know provides checklists that cover virtually every piece of information you would need to pass on to surviving loved ones. This format is superior to a letter, in that it allows you to simply enter information into a template. You can even provide information on who you want to receive your special personal possessions, and even details about the funeral service you would like to have. Believe it or not, these small things are sometimes some of the most stressful decisions that survivors must make. As a practical matter, the printed booklet has limitations in that personal preferences and financial information change over time, especially for younger individuals. Thus, mark-outs and erasures are common, which can also lead to confusion. Plus, in our electronic age, much of our personal information is now kept on our computers. 

Fortunately, Emerson Publications also has a Microsoft Word version available that is much easier to update.  Once you receive your booklet  via download, I encourage you to complete it soon, and then let your spouse or other loved one know where it will be kept. Since the booklet will contain some of your most sensitive information, you should select a keeping place that is safe and secure. Plus, be sure to completely erase the electronic version from old computers before you sell, trade or discard them. It is also important that you review the information in your All They’ll Need To Know booklet at least annually to make sure all information is current. Outdated records can be just as confusing as no records at all. Gary D. Halbert, ProFutures, Inc. and Halbert Wealth Management, Inc. are not affiliated with nor do they endorse, sponsor or recommend the following product or service. 

Conclusions As I stated at the beginning of this article, I wanted to keep my comments non-political and generally focused on basic end-of-life financial matters. There are many other estate planning and family considerations to be made in addition to the above items, including deciding guardianship of minor children, setting up and maintaining trusts, establishing a succession plan for sole proprietors, funeral expenses, etc. However, all of these are far beyond the scope of this short E-Letter, and most require the services of a qualified attorney and CPA. Suffice it to say that there are many financial, legal, and family issues to be considered upon a person’s death. These issues can either be dealt with prior to death through careful planning with qualified professionals, or left to bereaved survivors who will have to face these issues during a period of great stress and turmoil. If you are reading this E-Letter, it is likely that you are the financial partner in your family. If so, I suggest you carefully consider the suggestions I have given and take steps to inform and protect your loved ones upon your death. 

I also encourage you to order the All They’ll Need To Know booklet and complete it with the help of your non-financial partner. This will help him or her see the importance of becoming involved in the family finances. While the subject matter of this week’s E-Letter may be less than cheerful, it is nonetheless important, especially in terms of long-term financial and estate planning. We all know that none of us are guaranteed to see tomorrow, so pre-death planning is an important consideration for anyone who wants to make it easier for their surviving loved ones. That’s all on that subject for now. I hope this helps. 

Gary D. Halbert, President Halbert Wealth Management Austin, TX
Also by Gary Halbert:
Beyond Living Wills Getting Your Affairs In Order – Beyond Living Wills

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