“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.”
- Haruki Murakami
Continuing in our series on Spring cleaning, let’s go a bit deeper than focusing just on airing out curtains and vacuuming dusty refrigerator coils.
Let’s look at ALL of the places that need some attention in your life … including some that will only increase in significance as time goes on … and that’s estate planning.
Now, planning your estate is probably not the first thing you think of when you think about spring cleaning, because it’s essentially tidying up something that feels far away and nicely vague … particularly if you’re healthy and youngish, at least in spirit!
Plus, few people like to think about death in much detail. Unless you’re reading a great mystery novel or true crime magazine.
But since it’s coming for all of us—again, hopefully later rather than sooner—avoiding the issue doesn’t prevent it from arriving.
It just leaves our loved ones with a bunch of questions and potentially a pile of crap they have to sift through when they’d rather be grieving and/or celebrating our amazing lives.
Deliberately planning your estate is the best way to avoid confusion, resentment and overwhelm in the lives of the people you’ll be leaving behind, and it’s not that hard to get started. Here are 3 simple steps you can take TODAY to spring clean your anticipated post-mortem mess.
#1: LIST YOUR ASSETS AND LIABILITIES
It seems like a simple statement, just list what you own and what you owe, right?
Except most of us are not that organized. So even if you know what you have, can you quickly find the information necessary to document it?
The specific details of our bank accounts, safe deposit boxes, investment portfolios, titles and deeds, and all the rest of these kinds of belongings tend to get lost in drifts of paper that accumulate over time.
And even if we have a pretty clear and accurate sense of WHAT we own, WHERE we have it can sometimes be quite jumbled and scattered.
So here’s a simple step #1: compile the records for every asset and liability you have.
And here’s a great starter list of common assets to inspire your search:
- Bank accounts
- Safe deposit boxes
- Investment accounts, including retirement accounts
- Health savings accounts
- Real estate
- Off-site storage spaces (and their contents)
- Art, jewelry, collections and other valuables
- Life insurance
And on the other side of the ledger, here are some common liabilities:
- Personal loans
- Bank loans
- Auto loans
- Credit card debt
- Student loans
List everything you can think of on a single sheet of paper, along with the details you readily know without digging around.
Then keep this list secure, because it’s basically an identity thief’s jackpot otherwise.
No need to include account numbers to start with—just things like bank names, safe deposit box numbers, storage unit details, and anything else to help point your executor in the right direction.
Keep this list with the paperwork you’ll eventually share with the executor of your will and/or estate plan.
If you’re overwhelmed, set your timer for 30 minutes and start at the top of the inspiration list of items above. Start pulling things together, and tackle the list in blocks of 15-30 minutes. You’ll be amazed what you can do in just a few minutes at a time.
They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your estate won’t be planned that quickly, either.
#2: RECORD FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS
If you want a green funeral, but haven’t gotten around to telling anyone about that wish yet, your surviving family members will have no way of knowing that you hoped to be buried under an oak tree in your favorite meadow.
Don’t make anyone guess, or agonize about whether they’re honoring your last wishes accurately—it just adds stress to an already stressful situation.
Make your intentions and desires super clear by writing them down—especially if you’ve already made arrangements.
Also, give some thought to a living will. Living wills are documents that express your desire for treatment (or lack thereof) if you are unable to make medical decisions for yourself.
There is a wealth of information online about both funeral arrangements and living wills, so I won’t reinvent the wheel. AARP, in particular, has fantastic resources on both topics:
#3: CONSIDER YOUR EXECUTOR
When you die, you’ll leave behind an estate made up of your property and your debts. All of this will need to be dispatched and resolved as outlined in your will.
For those with large or complex families—or no living family at all—choosing beneficiaries can be tricky—especially when it comes to selecting guardians for children under 18.
Choosing an executor of your estate is a great first step. It’s usually an easier choice than anticipating who will care for your kids should something happen to you ... and there’s just one person to tap on the shoulder to begin with.
The executor is basically the person who will take over admin rights for what you’ve left behind when you die. This includes selling property, paying your bills, and distributing your assets according to your will.
Ideally, this should be a trusted—and responsible—friend or advisor.
If familial relations are complex or strained, choose someone outside your family who is not a beneficiary of your will. They shouldn’t have any tangled relationships with your heirs, nor should they be viewed as potentially biased.
You can pay someone like a lawyer to do this for you, or you can select a trustworthy friend.
If you’re having trouble picking someone, think of who you’d trust with your account information—you know, the person you’d want at your house first to erase your questionable Google history (and remove your adult toys) before anyone else showed up.
And while you’re at it, you may want to also give this trusted friend access to your email and social media accounts. Depending on your relationship, you may even want to share account login details for your financial institutions with them as well.
This person doesn’t have to be your executor, but it’s helpful if it happens to be the same person who’ll end up paying your bills later, anyway.
Sadly, not all of those depart the physical world when you do.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Estate planning isn’t just important. It’s critical to the future happiness of the people you love most, on so many levels.
It also helps to direct your resources where you want them to go after you’re gone.
It’s tempting to procrastinate on this task because you don’t want to dwell on death or end up down a morbid rabbit hole … but we never know when our time will come—and besides, estate planning doesn’t have to be a miserable chore.
In fact, the amount of relief you’ll feel when you’re finished is at least as great as the anxiety and agitation you feel anytime you think of it PRIOR to completing it.
You may well be surprised at how freeing it can be to be on the other side of all these kinds of decisions.
Start with just 3 simple steps:
- List your assets/liabilities
- Record your living will and funeral arrangements
- Choose an executor
And start by spending just a few minutes on each step today.
You don’t need to finish all of this at once but/and you also don’t want to wait any longer than you need to. You can’t predict the future so this is one time when sooner is much better than later.
So get started now. The loved ones you leave behind will thank you.
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