Estate Planning 101: 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.

Need more information? Contact us today to schedule your free estate planning consultation.

The intersection of estate planning and 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.

Ancillary issues in divorce: Insurance

The divorce process is long, difficult, and can be complex.  At the end of it, most clients/litigants/parties just feel relieved it’s over and don’t want to think about any aspect of the whole process anymore.  This is a dangerous place to be in, regardless of how natural it is after such an ordeal, because many loose ends can ultimately remain loose and come back to hurt you and your family.  We’ll focus on insurance today, but there are other loose ends in terms of financial/college planning, estate planning, and taxes that should also be addressed post-divorce.  With regard to insurance, if you’re getting divorced or have just become divorced, you should:

  1. Update the beneficiaries on your life insurance.  The same is true for any of your other payable on death (POD) accounts or retirement accounts, 401Ks, etc.  You don’t want your ex to get the money should something happen to  you, do you?
  2. Look into health insurance plans and cost.  If you are covered under your spouse’s health insurance plan, once you are divorced, you can no longer be covered by that plan. So you will need to look into COBRA, if that is available, or look into getting your own plan.  This can be a lengthy and difficult process, in California can dramatically affect support calculations, and be shockingly expensive, so the earlier you look into this and are prepared, the better.
  3. Update/change your home and auto insurance.  Most couples will separate their auto insurance, which may mean losing a multiple car discount, and may also lose a combination discount if your home insurance is bundled with your auto insurance. Speaking of home insurance, you want to make sure you update that if one spouse moves out of the family home.  Your best bet is to talk with an experienced insurance broker who can help you.  A broker is better than a captive agent (State Farm, Nationwide, etc.) and much better than trying  your luck online.

These are the main insurances to worry about. Some couples will have to work with long-term care policies or other kinds of insurance, and each circumstance varies depending on the individuals and family involved. But it’s very important not to leave these loose ends untied at the end of a divorce, regardless of how tired you are of the process.  The best way to deal with these things is to have professionals working for you, who make the process easier.

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?

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.

Ancillary issues in California divorce: Insurance

The divorce process is long, difficult, and can be complex.  At the end of it, most clients/litigants/parties just feel relieved it’s over and don’t want to think about any aspect of the whole process anymore.  This is a dangerous place to be in, regardless of how natural it is after such an ordeal, because many loose ends can ultimately remain loose and come back to hurt you and your family.  We’ll focus on insurance today, but there are other loose ends in terms of financial/college planning, estate planning, and taxes that should also be addressed post-divorce.  With regard to insurance, if you’re getting divorced or have just become divorced, you should:

  1. Update the beneficiaries on your life insurance.  The same is true for any of your other payable on death (POD) accounts or retirement accounts, 401Ks, etc.  You don’t want your ex to get the money should something happen to  you, do you?
  2. Look into health insurance plans and cost.  If you are covered under your spouse’s health insurance plan, once you are divorced, you can no longer be covered by that plan. So you will need to look into COBRA, if that is available, or look into getting your own plan.  This can be a lengthy and difficult process, in California can dramatically affect support calculations, and be shockingly expensive, so the earlier you look into this and are prepared, the better.
  3. Update/change your home and auto insurance.  Most couples will separate their auto insurance, which may mean losing a multiple car discount, and may also lose a combination discount if your home insurance is bundled with your auto insurance. Speaking of home insurance, you want to make sure you update that if one spouse moves out of the family home.  Your best bet is to talk with an experienced insurance broker who can help you.  A broker is better than a captive agent (State Farm, Nationwide, etc.) and much better than trying  your luck online.

These are the main insurances to worry about. Some couples will have to work with long-term care policies or other kinds of insurance, and each circumstance varies depending on the individuals and family involved. But it’s very important not to leave these loose ends untied at the end of a divorce, regardless of how tired you are of the process.  The best way to deal with these things is to have professionals working for you, who make the process easier.

Estate planning guide: when, how and why to update your existing plan

One of the most common estate planning questions I get is when and why you would need to update your estate plan. Here are your guidelines:

  1. Has the value of your estate increased substantially since your last update?  Do you have more than $5 million if you’re single, or $10 million if you’re married?  Is this a change from before?  If so, then you may want to consider a review of your estate plan.
  2. Did you complete your powers of attorney before 2003?  In California the forms changed at that time, so now would be a good time to take another look.
  3. Are your beneficiaries on your retirement and life insurance accounts updated?
  4. Does your estate plan reflect your current family and desires for distribution to them?  Or has there been a birth, death, marriage or divorce since your last estate check up?  If so, you may need a review.
  5. Are you protected for a time (the time) when you are unable to think or care for yourself? Do you have your powers of attorney? Long-term care?  Advances in medical care mean we will live longer, but at the same time we will more likely experience a diminishing of capacity before we pass on.  Without these basic planning tools, we leave our family with these burdens.  Are you approaching 50?  If you don’t have long-term care yet, now is the time to get it.  You can’t wait until you need it or you won’t qualify.
  6. Have you chosen a guardian for your minor children?  If you don’t, then your children could become the subject of a custody battle if something happens to you, or they could be place in foster care while the decision is being made.  Don’t take this risk!

If it has been a while since you created your estate plan, or you don’t have one at all, now is the time to put the tools in place to protect your family and your assets.  Schedule a FREE appointment online, or call us at 925.307.6543.