Given my previous career as a financial planner and investment advisor, I used to tell people to "do estate planning". With the recent passing of my father, I realized that there are lots of things you can do beyond meeting with a qualified estate attorney (which I highly recommend) to make the settlement of your estate easier for your heirs. Prior to death, here are the basic documents that you will need:
- Letter of Instruction
- Power of Attorney
- Health Care Proxy
- Trusts (not necessary, but many people have either revocable (changeable) or irrevocable (not-changeable), depending on family situations)
- "DNR" or "Do Not Resuscitate" order (this may need to be completed upon each new entry to hospital or nursing home)
- List of all bank accounts
- List of all user names and passwords
- List of automatic pay accounts with name and contact information of each payee
- List of safe-deposit boxes
- 401 (k) accounts
- IRA's, Roth IRAs
- Pension documents
- Annuity contracts
- Brokerage account information (name, contact phone number and e-mail address)
- Detailed list of savings bonds (and copies of actual bonds)
- Life insurance policies (private and through employer)
- Long Term Care insurance policies
- Housing, land and cemetery deeds
- Mortgage accounts
- Proof of loans made
- Vehicle title
- Partnership and corporate operating agreements
- Previous three year's tax returns
- Marriage license
- Divorce papers
- Military discharge information
- List of contact information (contacts on accounts, names, current addresses and Social Security numbers of all people named in the legal documents, as well as the contact information for the estate attorney and CPA who will be handling the estate.)
After completing all of this hard work, you need to inform your executor/executrix as to where everything is stored. You may even want to review all of the information so that you can answer any questions while you can.
After death, things get complicated. Although I was well versed in the process of settling an estate, it was still mind-blowing to wade through the process while the family was still grieving. I was careful not to go too fast with my mother, so that she did not feel overwhelmed. It’s helpful to remember that everyone in the family grieves in different ways, which is why patience and compassion are often your most valuable commodities during the process.
Get organized. I found solace in a spreadsheet, which helped me keep track of the estate settlement progression, but you can use any system that works for you. Just remember that there are usually many moving parts and you may not be at the top of your game for remembering everything that needs to get done. A visit to your favorite stationery store will help you keep records of everything stored neatly in one location.
Request plenty of death certificates. Some institutions want originals, not copies, and it’s easier to make the request from the funeral home, not after the fact from the city or state.
Keep track of all bills that are attributable to the estate. These include funeral and memorial arrangements, death notices and other ancillary expenses. The estate can reimburse individuals for these costs.
Contact the estate attorney. When you are ready, schedule time to meet with the estate attorney. He or she will likely tell you to gather documents and to ascertain a date of death valuation for all accounts to which the deceased held title. If there is a surviving spouse, you should itemize what is in both the living and deceased spouse’s names.
Contact the CPA. Even if there are no estate taxes due, in most cases, it will be necessary to file an estate tax return. If you prepare your own taxes, it may make sense to hire a pro to help walk you through the process.
A well-planned estate is a wonderful legacy you can leave your heirs--instead of untangling a messy estate, they can follow concrete steps, which allows them to take care of business while mourning their loved one.