As an estate planning attorney, I see on a much too regular basis the aftermath of the “unexpected” and what happens when people are not prepared.
Being prepared is not something you do for yourself: being prepared is something you do for those you love. You must consider the following six key points, some legal and some just practical, to help make sure you are prepared:
1. Who will raise your children? If something happens to you, who do you want to raise your children? If you don’t have guardians named in a valid will, the Probate Court will make that decision for you. The Court may choose the same person you would … but maybe not. Many times the motivating factor when I prepare a will for younger people centers on the desire to designate who raises their children if they are no longer around.
2. What are your assets? While it may be obvious that you own a house and a car, your other assets may not be as apparent. Do you have investment accounts or certificates of deposits? Do you have 25 ounces of gold hidden in the rafters of your basement, or did you loan someone $5,000, proactively requiring them to sign a promissory note to ensure you are paid back? People are usually very confidential about their financial affairs and more often than not even close family members just don’t know all of your assets. Create a list of your major assets, and make sure that at least one person you trust knows, should the unexpected happen, where to find it. It does not have to be elaborate — just a simple list of each asset (e.g., savings account, certificate of deposit, bond, mutual fund, etc.) and where you located it.
3. What do you owe? Again you can really help someone trying to figure out what to do, if you are not around, when you leave them an idea of your legal debts. Do you have a mortgage on your home, an equity line of credit, a personal note you signed when you borrowed money from a friend or family member? You don’t need anything complex, just a list of your major liabilities.
4. Who are your advisors? Does the person who will be handling your affairs after you are gone (or while you are alive but incompetent) have any idea who you go to for advice? You should have a list of people you would want them to contact if something happened to you. Your list should include the name and telephone number for your attorney, financial advisor, insurance agent, clergy, business partner, and anyone else you think they could benefit from calling.
5. What happens to your stuff? What do you want to happen to everything you have accumulated when you are no longer here? Does it go equally to your children? Nothing to your children? To your spouse? To your barber? If you don’t have a will or perhaps a trust which directs how you want your assets distributed, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has one for you. Making sure your property passes to those you choose does not happen automatically — you have to prepare by making your intentions known through a validly executed will or trust.
6. Where are all the above documents located? Taking the steps set forth above is not that useful if no one can find the documents. Make sure to designate a file, a drawer or a box that either contains all the documents, or contains instructions on how to find them. While no one needs to see the contents of this box until the appropriate time, make sure someone knows that it exists. A simple statement to that person, such as, “If anything were to happen to me you need to look in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet (or wherever your items are located) for the documents you should review,” can go a long way to making your unexpected event easier to bear.
If you are not prepared for the unexpected please consider implementing the above steps. Someday, hopefully a long time from now, your family will be thankful you did.
This column constitutes legal advertising, and is designed only as an information service. While every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of the information, it should not be relied upon as legal advice. Legal advice is only provided after a careful review of the specific facts provided by a client after formation of an attorney-client relationship.