Last year, I picked up a recreational hobby that provides tremendous fun and enjoyment, but I knew it also introduced a certain amount of risk into my life. As a result, I made a deal with myself that this would be the catalyst for the much-needed task of getting my affairs in order. I knew how important it was to do, but it was also something I had been putting off for a long time. Sound familiar?
As time goes on and you get older, the reality is that people die. It may start with a grandparent or great uncle, but soon, you learn that people die who aren’t supposed to. People who you went to high school with. Your best friends’ mom. Perhaps most sadly of all, children. Life seems to get shorter with every passing day, and you never know when your time is up.
Where to Start
In my case, I consulted a lawyer to help draft my documents and provide guidance. By setting up an appointment, this is also a great way to tempt fate and introduce tremendous paranoia. (Next Wednesday at 2 p.m.? What if something happens before then?!) The reality is you can do this yourself if you prefer. Look online for forms or software, as well as reputable guidance for the laws and requirements for your state. Generally though, using a qualified attorney is the most secure path. Personally, the idea of my family having a “go to” person for questions or assistance brings me peace of mind in the event of my demise.
It becomes clear very quickly that you are not doing this for yourself, but for the loved ones you leave behind. In addition to your final wishes, you gather important information about things like insurance policies, retirement accounts and property deeds. If you think it’s a pain to do so, can you imagine how much harder it would be for your loved ones to figure things out without you? This process forces you to get organized. As my colleague Sherri recently shared, the burden left on others can be enormous.
While state laws differ and there will be different considerations due to spouses, children, and larger estates, the key is ultimately to document and collect information in the best interest of your loved ones. It’s always a good idea to have a will, but an advance directive and power of attorney document are very important as well for medical incapacitation aspect of all this fun, and should be part of the process.
When you create your will, you also choose an executor (and a backup), who should be a trusted person essentially designated to be your representative. They have a fiduciary duty to act in good faith and handle all of the details required to wrap up your estate, which could include signing or filing documents, paying debts and taxes, finding and distributing your assets, and of course ensuring that your final wishes are carried out.
Depending on the circumstances after your death, your will may be filed with the court, which then becomes public record. (This is why many people prefer to set up a trust – a more sophisticated form of estate planning – which may be private.) Some states allow you to create a separate personal property document,which allows you to specify who you want to give things to, like a piece of jewelry or prized deer antlers from a family hunting trip. You may also wish to leave written notes or letters for people, including in the form of an ethical will or passing of family history and wisdom, which your executor would be responsible for delivering to the intended recipients.
With my personal property document, I took pleasure in being able to control and affect some very small things, but that I knew would have a meaningful impact on others. As inconsequential as some items may seem, I hope my decisions would bring them joy and comfort and appreciate that I took the time to do it. Plus, they can’t argue with me.
Review and Share
As with all legal documents, make sure that you review them periodically and keep them updated. It’s also very important to let your family know where the documents are and who has them, both the originals and any copies.
Ideally, you are getting prepared for something that hopefully won’t happen for a long, long time. But understand that by creating a will, advance directive and related documents, you are acknowledging death and looking the Grim Reaper square in the face. It is a weird, emotional process, but you (and especially your loved ones) will be better off for it.