“Do not take life too seriously. You will never get out of it alive.” – Elbert Hubbard
Look, I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but eventually you are going to pass away. Probably not anytime soon, but eventually, years from now, you will (sorry!). However, you can help your loved ones prepare for your eventual passing by taking some steps now.
Initially, you should have your primary legal documents in place, including the Advanced Medical Directive, General Durable Power of Attorney, and your Last Will and Testament. As a general overview, a General Durable Power of Attorney gives one person (the agent) authority to act on behalf of another person (the principal). Full power or limited power can be granted in the document. The Advanced Medical Directive allows a person to designate which medical procedures may be performed, choices about artificial life support, and the designation of an agent to make medical decisions if you are unable to do so. Finally, a Last Will and Testament (or simply, Will) distributes your assets upon your death. It is important to have these documents in place in order to allow your loved ones to manage your affairs both before and after your eventual passing.
Additionally, there are a number of other steps that you can take now in order to properly prepare loved ones for your passing:
Non-Probate Assets: First (and very important!), some assets pass by means other than a will; these include insurance policies, Individual Retirement Accounts, 401(k) plans, pension plans, and profit-sharing plans. Beneficiaries and payable-on-death (POD) or transferable-on-death (TOD) designations are named on the contract, and—unless you designate “my estate” or make no choice at all—the transfer takes place directly upon death without involving the probate court. You can change your beneficiaries as the need arises by completing the required paperwork with the account holder—a bank or brokerage company. You cannot change them using a will or other estate-planning method. It is important to review beneficiary designations annually or when circumstances change to make sure that your assets will be distributed as you desire.
Gifts: Gifts are voluntary transfers of property without receiving payment before you die. Examples include stocks, cash, real estate, equipment, and personal property. Gifts can reduce the size of your taxable estate. However, if deathbed gifts leave the estate without funds to pay creditors, the probate court can order the property to be paid back to the estate. Gifting law is complex. Gifts can have an impact on taxes and eligibility for public benefits such as Medicaid to pay for nursing home care. Consult experts before making any substantial gifts.
Property Ownership: Property ownership involves tangible, intangible, and real property (possessions) to which its owner has legal title. The way in which you own property or the way it is titled (such as single or joint ownership) will determine how it is distributed upon death. Moreover, ownership is defined by state laws. It is important to make wise decisions about how property will be transferred to insure that it gets to the intended party. Careful consideration in planning and titling property will help avoid unintended consequences.
Digital Assets: These assets include everything that you have digitally or online, including financial accounts, social media accounts, music, emails, etc. Most people are not aware that these digital assets can actually be included in your estate, and without properly planning for these assets, can be very difficult to access after your passing. Prepare loved ones by writing down passwords and usernames for each of your online accounts, and then put these in a safe place. Please be sure to notify your Executor where your passwords are located for these digital assets.
Finally, and probably most important, please make sure to speak with your family members about your eventual passing. Even though this is obviously the most difficult step to take, it will be the most significant step you can take. By informing all family members about your estate, as well as who will be the Executor, I promise you will save your loved ones tons of headaches later on. By taking all of these steps now, you can successfully prepare everyone involved to seamlessly and easily handle your affairs when you are eventually gone (years from now, of course!!).