My father-in-law just passed away. Yes, it was a sad time for the family. Losing a great man that was dearly loved was difficult. But as with many clouds that come over our lives, there are silver linings. What I learned through this was just how much love he had for his family and how many ways he expressed that love, even extending beyond his lifetime.
I was there with my wife at the funeral home helping make the arrangements for his services. We learned that all the decisions that needed to be made had already been made, actually many years in advance. Every detail was decided, everything paid for in advance. I was struck by how comforting it was to know that his services were going to be exactly what he wanted, exactly the way he had planned. The family didn’t have to struggle with difficult, often emotional decisions.
I commented on this to the funeral director who was helping us. He said it was sad how few families pre-plan their funeral services, leaving the grieving family to wade through a myriad of decisions about so many details. It is painful enough to lose a loved one without suddenly being thrown into a tailspin of planning and decision making.
The funeral director went on to describe the painful process many families go through to try to reach consensus on all the details of the services for their departed loved one. He described how sometimes these conversations even become confrontational between family members because each feels they “know” just what the deceased would have wanted. My thought at the time was “Why your family through all that when it is so easily avoided by planning in advance.”
In the case of my father-in-law, I learned that he loved his family enough that not only was everything decided and paid for in advance, he had started this planning process when he was 22 years old. I was awed by someone forward thinking enough, secure enough in his faith, and caring enough for his family to start a process 70 years in advance. Not only was the funeral service pre-planned, but his estate plan, wills, trusts, durable power of attorney, health care power of attorney, all were in good order, up to date, all of which made every step of the way in caring for him in his final days so much easier.
As a Certified Financial Planner™ professional, I work with families every day to help them plan and prepare for their future. I encourage them to create and maintain an up to date estate plan. I recommend that they review all the estate planning documents about every three years or so, just to make sure it still says what they want it to say and then have their estate planning attorney review it in light of any changes to the rules that Congress or the IRS may have made. I tell my clients that creating and maintaining an up to date estate plan is one of the most loving and caring things you can do for your family. It just makes their lives easier when you are gone.
Now, I realize that many people don’t like to talk about death and dying. For that matter, I don’t either. However, the reality of our lives as human beings is that we are all mortal and one day, we will pass from this life and move on to whatever is next in our belief system. Since we must all face that reality someday and the loved ones we leave behind will have to move on with their lives eventually, why not make the whole process easier for the ones we care most about?
If you don’t already have an estate plan, now is the time to take steps to get that situation rectified. At the minimum, for a basic estate plan, you need a will, a durable power of attorney, and a health care power of attorney. Some will also benefit from using trusts in addition to the basic estate plan and some more complex situations may need other documentation as well. In addition, you may want to provide the family with a letter of instruction and a list of important information. Each of these documents serves a valuable purpose. Each does its part to make things easier for your family. Each is a physical demonstration of your love for your family. All of them are topics covered in much more detail in my book, The Financial Briefing.
To draft an estate plan, you will need the services of an estate planning attorney. This is a specialty area of law and it is important that you choose an attorney that actually works with estate planning as a primary part of their professional practice. The foundation of an estate plan is the will, or for some, a trust. For some, you will need both a will and a trust. Your attorney can advise what is best in your particular circumstances. A will (or a trust or both) spells out your wishes for the disposition of your estate after you die. Your estate is everything that you own less everything that you owe. You get to decide who gets what and when and how they get it.
A durable power of attorney allows another person to act legally on your behalf should you become incapacitated or cognitively impaired such that you are no longer able to handle your own affairs. With a married couple, typically the spouse is named power of attorney. Adult children are often named as successor powers of attorney should the spouse be unable to act on your behalf. In the case of my father-in-law, my wife, his daughter, was named as power of attorney and handled many things for him before he died. The healthcare power of attorney works in a similar way and gives another person the power to make medical decisions on your behalf, should you no longer be in a position to make health care decisions yourself. My wife was also named as health care power of attorney for her father and was able to handle many health care decisions and details before he died. This made so many things so much easier for everyone concerned.
Having both legal and health care powers of attorney in place save a lot of time, money, and grief for the family, especially during the last few months of life. In the absence of these documents, accomplishing the same things might require hiring an attorney and petitioning a court to get to act on your behalf.
A letter of instruction is just what it sounds like. It is an open letter from you to your spouse or maybe the whole family that says in your own words what you would like to tell them and makes sure they know about you and your affairs. The letter tells them what they need to know to carry out your wishes. The letter makes it easy and clear to know whom to call, where the important documents are located, what to take into consideration in handling this or that matter. I have such a letter that I have written to my wife and it has been revised and updated many times over the years. Each time something changes in our lives, I update the letter on my computer, print out a copy, and go over the changes in the letter with my wife. I then put a signed copy of the newly revised letter in our bank lockbox and dispose of the old version so that only the most current information is ready and available to my family when they need it.
A list of important information is also just what it sounds like. It is a list of important telephone numbers, email addresses, account numbers, online username and passwords, contact information for key people in your life, such as bankers, financial planners, investment professionals, insurance agents, attorneys, realtors, and so on. This information might be easy enough for you to recall or access, but imagine your family trying to reconstruct all this information without your help. Again, such a document makes things easier for the ones you care about. It is about love for your family
Now that I have had the personal experience of losing my beloved father-in-law and seeing the value of all of his effort at planning his affairs exceptionally well, I will make funeral planning a part of my conversation with my clients. I will take action on this in my own life as I believe in practicing what I “preach”. My wife and I are talking right now about our plans for our own services and will be making those arrangements in the very near future.
If you are reading this and you don’t have an estate plan in place, make a commitment to get that taken care of very soon. If you have an estate plan that has been in place more than three years, dust off those documents and read them again. Take the documents to your attorney and ask them to review the documents as well.
If you have made your own funeral arrangements and have pre-paid for your funeral services, you are to be congratulated for an awesome act of love for your family. If you are like me and haven’t done this, make a plan to get this handled in the near future.
We all express love in many ways. Getting your affairs in order, making an estate plan, planning for your funeral may sound like dull activities you would rather just put off until some later date. However, procrastination on these issues is, in my view, a disservice to your family. If you really love them, take action now! It could be one of the more loving and caring things you will ever do to express your love for them.
If you want some guidance on dealing with these issues, be sure to visit my website at www.erichutchinsonfinancial.com. There you will find many resources that may be helpful to you. Subscribe to my blog, if you haven’t already. Watch the videos that focus on these estate planning topics. If you want to get a read on your readiness for your financial future, take my free self-assessment quiz. If you want to speak with me directly for a free, no-obligation consultation, just call me at 1-800-635-9985, extension 104. I look forward to hearing from you.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not necessarily the views of United Capital Financial Advisers, LLC. United Capital does not warrant the accuracy or completeness of the information. The commentary is intended for information purposes only. Estate planning can involve a complex web of tax rules and regulations. You should consider the counsel of an experienced legal professional before implementing any strategy.