Putting your affairs in order: what documents to collect to save your family

Generally, we think of “putting our affairs in order” as something we do after we get the terminal illness diagnosis from the doctor.  There are many reasons not to wait for that time to get your affairs situated, but I’ll leave that for another time.  Today I want to talk about what it actually means to get your affairs in order. First, though, let’s see why it’s important:

Have you ever been the one “in charge” after someone has died?  No?  Imagine this: your nearest and dearest loved one has passed away.  You’ve talked to the hospital and picked a mortuary, so that’s a process that’s been started.  It’s really hard to talk about your loved ones “body” or “remains” while you’re still trying to process the loss in the first few minutes or hours.  But then you feel like you have to DO something, so you head to the house to see if you can find the “important papers.”  Two things can happen at this point:

Scenario one is that you arrive, and already know where the estate plan is, and head right for it.  With it are all of the life insurance policies, retirement and bank accounts, instructions, pre-need funeral planning receipts and contact information, and smaller things like an address book to get in touch with all his/her friends, a locked box (which you have the key) with all of the computer passwords, safe combinations and the like.  There seems to be a lot to do, so you contact the estate planning attorney, who, after asking you a couple questions, says, “there’s nothing to worry about and nothing to do.  Take care of you, your family, and the final arrangements.  Then call me back in a couple weeks if you have questions, but the instructions should all be there…just don’t worry about it now.”  So this is what you do, as you start calling friends and family members and bracing for the days ahead.

Scenario two is that you arrive, and don’t know where anything is.  Does s/he even have life insurance?  Where are the bank accounts?  Was there a will?  Where is it?  You start tearing apart the desk, closets, cupboards,…and find nothing.  Now you’re grieving, in shock, have a million things to do, and now you can’t find anything.  This adds to your stress, so you call in other family members, who are now tearing apart the boxes in the garage.  Everything is chaos, and still no information.  It’s overwhelming to the family.

Which would you prefer your loved ones experience?

The former?  GREAT choice.  Now, here’s what to put in the file:

  1. Your estate plan, with trust and will.
  2. Your powers of attorney.
  3. Your life/long-term care insurance information.
  4. Your retirement information.
  5. Bank account information.
  6. Pre-need funeral planning documents.
  7. Investment account documents.
  8. Deeds of property, such as homes, vehicles and boats.
  9. Health, disability, auto and property insurance documents.
  10. Income source documents (social security, employment, investments, child/spousal support).
  11. Credit card statements and evidence of other debt.
  12. Important papers, such as marriage/birth/death certificates, passports, tax returns, military or genealogical records.
  13. Names/contact information of trusted professionals, such as accountants, lawyers, financial advisors, gardeners, house cleaners or caregivers, home repair professionals (electrician, plumber, roofer, chimney sweep, etc.).

And one final thought: make sure you have at least one trusted friend or family member who knows where it is and what’s in it.

Estate planning and California divorce: a checklist to avoid disaster

Often, after the time, expense, and emotional upheaval of California divorce (as well as moving, adjusting to life as a single person/parent, dealing with tightening finances…etc. etc.), the last thing on anyone’s mind is estate planning.  Yes, it’s one of the things on the list of things to do…later, when you have time.  When you’re emotionally ready to think about it.  Right?  Well, the reality is that just post-divorce IS the best time to do estate planning.  Why?

  1. Because it’s on your mind since you’re working to get the rest of your life in order.
  2. It’s critical to get your ex-spouse off of your accounts and as your beneficiary.  You really don’t want him/her inheriting from you, do you?
  3. It’s really not that hard, and in fact rather than being draining or difficult, can not only be empowering but help you to really feel like your life has restarted.

Here are the key estate planning items you need to take care of post-divorce (and note you probably can’t do these during your divorce due to the ATROs):

  1. Create a new (or initial) living trust and will to protect your assets and your beneficiaries.
  2. Cancel any old estate plans.
  3. Sign a new power of attorney for asset management.
  4. Sign a new health care advance directive power of attorney.
  5. Designate the guardian for your children should you pass away.
  6. Get new life insurance to meet your (and your children’s) needs.
  7. Update the beneficiary on your life insurance, retirement accounts (401Ks, IRAs, etc.) and other payable on death (POD) accounts.
  8. Make sure your assets are retitled in your name only.
  9. Let people know you’re no longer divorced, like banks, health care providers, and other trusted advisors so no one gives out personal or confidential information inadvertently.
  10. Talk to your parents about estate planning, the importance, and how it will help everyone if they create an estate plan (it helps them to leave a legacy and saves you the additional intense difficulty of probate).

Doing these simple tasks will help you to feel stronger, in control, and empowered to take on life’s next challenge.  What are you waiting for? Make an online appointment by clicking here.

Long-Term Care Insurance: California divorce and estate planning

There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation about long-term care insurance, and I don’t profess to know all of the ins and outs of it. But I DO know that it’s critical to have for just about everyone. By the time you’ve hit your forties, you need to look into it and get a policy before it becomes too late.

Now, what does this have to do with divorce? When you’re married, you have a built-in buddy. Someone who may be able to take care of you once you start having trouble taking care of yourself. You have to figure that either you or your spouse is going to lose it before the other, and the one left standing will be the caregiver.

Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily fair, and I am a strong believer in long-term care insurance for everyone, but this post is about divorce, so I’ll skip that.

It’s even more critical to have long-term care insurance when you are divorced because you don’t have an automatic back up to care for you if you fall ill. Long-term care covers in-home help and fills in the gap of health insurance or Medicare. In-home help can cost $25-30 per hour, and this really adds up if you need around the clock care. If you care about staying in your home and staying independent as long as you can, you should check into long-term care. And if you don’t care about these things now, believe me, you will. But perhaps by the time you realize how much you care about these things, it might be too late to get the insurance you need.

Don’t wait. Look into it now. It’s not very expensive and could mean a world of difference to you.

Changing beneficiaries during/after California divorce

While you are married, generally you name your spouse as the beneficiary on your life insurance, 401K, pension, etc. Once you get divorced, however, you are going to want to change those beneficiaries. This may sound simple, but it is extremely common for someone to forget and their ex-spouse ends up with their assets upon their death.

Why is that? I can only guess. First, as I have discussed before, during the time your case is in the court system (after you have filed your Petition but before you have your Judgment), you MAY NOT change any of your beneficiaries or your will or trust without consent from the other party. You cannot even sever a joint tenancy without notifying your spouse. But AFTER, when the case is over, you are not only free to do so, but you really need to.

I think some people forget, or once they have their Judgment, they want to put all of the hassle behind them. Don’t do this! You took the effort to get divorced – don’t forget to complete the process and change the beneficiaries on your accounts!

A friend of mine came to me recently because the spouse of a colleague of his had passed away. The only asset this person left was a life insurance policy that named a girlfriend of his from nearly twenty years before. She’s likely to lose her home because her husband, in twenty years, never changed his life insurance policy beneficiary.

Avoid these shortcuts in estate planning and save your assets, protect your family, and leave a legacy

We’re all looking to save money and get our to do list done as quickly and easily as possible.  But when it comes to estate planning, quick and cheap shortcuts can end up not only costing you in the long run, but can hurt both your family and your legacy.

For example, if you decide to forego an estate plan for your real property, and instead opt for joint tenancy, then you are at best just delaying the probate process, and at worst exposing your home to complete loss in your lifetime. With joint tenancy, there may not be any need for probate or transfer proceedings at the death of the first spouse (just some simple) paperwork, at the death of the survivor, the property goes into probate, which can take years and cost up to 10% of the gross estate value, which can be in the tens of thousands of dollars even for estates with just a house – even one with substantial debt.  Putting a child on title to the property does not solve this problem, and can lead to your child’s creditors seizing the house, the inability to undo the transfer at a later date when needed, a loss of control over the disposition of the house, more complications in transfer at the survivor’s death, and more.

Another shortcut is either being incomplete or too vague in your estate plan documentation.  If you have a living trust, it must be funded completely.  It does not serve you or anyone else to leave “just that one account” outside the trust since it ‘has so little in it.’  Why leave a small account – or a large one – outside the trust and make it more difficult for your family to transfer it? It’s possible then that the bank will just get your money since it will be too much trouble to transfer the account outside the trust.  In addition, if you have provisions for the distribution of your estate, make sure you have alternate provisions in case your beneficiaries do not outlive you.  For example, if you are leaving everything to your children, make sure you have a provision for who gets your estate if the airplane goes down and you all pass at the same time.

There are a lot of aspects of estate planning that can easily be completed improperly, costing you, your family, and the estate you worked your life to build. Estate planning is not the place to look for a quick or cheap solution, but rather to take the time to ensure that all you’ve worked for is left just the way you want it.

Life Insurance and its potential role in California divorce

One of the most difficult aspects of divorce, behind the extreme emotional roller coaster, is the financial aspect. There’s never enough money to go around, and frequently both parties feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. The reality is that this is just the way it goes when you try to create two households out of one with the same amount of money coming in each month. One associated problem is that the court’s jurisdiction does not extend past a child’s 18th birthday (child support can go on to age 19, but that’s another issue), so the court cannot make orders about who will pay for your children’s education past high school, and how. College costs for a child who is now a toddler are astronomical – somewhere around $250,000-300,000 depending on the school. If you and your ex-spouse do not agree on how you will pay for college, then perhaps it won’t be paid at all. This is where life insurance can come in. Either or both of you can obtain and pay for a policy that will help to fund your children’s education past high school. It’s not very expensive, particularly if the cost is shared, and your child will thank you for putting aside the anger and making a joint effort on behalf of his or her education.

One final note on making that agreement: ensure that you put down in writing (1) what schools the funds will be applicable to (full-time college, trade schools, etc.), (2) what the funds will pay for (just tuition or room and board or books and supplies, or all of the above), and (3) what cuts off the funds (i.e. not attending full-time or grades below a C average).

In addition, life insurance can be taken out on the party who is paying child or spousal support, in the event that the financially-providing party/parent passes.  With the life insurance, the child(ren) and ex-spouse are insured some financial security in the event one parent dies.

Estate planning “musts” to take care of NOW

I often get asked what the most basic “must dos” or “must haves” are in estate planning.  Here is the answer:

  1. Talk to an estate planning attorney.  Most, like me, offer free consultations, so you don’t have to spend anything but time, and then at least you’ll know and understand your need and risks, and be able to make informed decisions
  2. Talk to a financial advisor.  See above – you only lose your time, and if you find a reputable one (your estate planning attorney should know several fantastic ones, as I do), then you can make sure that as  you grow older, you are working toward your financial goals.

Those two items will give you all the information you need.  But more specifically:

  1. If you have children, decide on and formally nominate a guardian to care for them if you are unable to.  If you don’t decide?  A judge – a stranger – will make the decision for you.
  2. Create a will or trust.  If you don’t decide who will get your stuff, someone else will.  You’ll also pay a lot of money for the privilege.  Again, talking to an estate planning attorney to find out your risks and options costs nothing.  Why remain uninformed?
  3. Make sure you have enough life insurance.  What you think of as “enough” and what is really and truly “enough” should your spouse die may be entirely different amounts.  If one spouse doesn’t work, and the working spouse dies, wouldn’t you want to have enough life insurance to allow the survivor to take time to grieve, take care of the children, and then think about work, instead of having to worry about finding work right away?
  4. Make sure your retirement and life insurance beneficiaries are always up to date.  If you’ve been married for 20 years and your life insurance names your girlfriend of 25 years ago when you pass away?  Then your girlfriend gets the money and your wife doesn’t.  Is that what you want?
  5. Make sure you have long-term care insurance if you need it.  A financial advisor can help you to decide on this, and the earlier you get it, the cheaper it is.
  6. Make sure both spouses know and understand the family finances, even if one spouse does the day-to-day management.  Do not get caught in a situation where one spouse dies and the survivor does not even know what accounts exist.
  7. On that note, put your paperwork in order, or at least in one place.  Even if it’s disorganized in a drawer, make sure all the important paperwork, account statements, estate plan, life insurance, etc. is all in one place and easy to find.  Should you pass away, your family will be going through a rough enough time as it is – don’t make it worse by leaving a scattered financial life.

None of these items are difficult or even time-consuming, but they mean everything in the world to your family should something happen to you.  What are you waiting for?