You cannot take anything for granted. That’s not an original thought, yes, I know. Yet how often do we assume that things will go smoothly and then get frustrated when they do not.
So what do we need to do to try to minimize any disputes that might arise?
In terms of what happens to your “stuff” after you die, you must prepare. You cannot assume that paperwork will be found, or that everything is in order, or that all the beneficiaries have that same understanding of what is supposed to happen. Do not believe that documents are on file in the county courthouse for anyone to find. Do not trust that your estate lawyer has filed and recorded all important deeds unless you have copies that prove that this has been done.
You’ve got to get your files in order now, while you still have the mental capacity to do so.
So here is my list of advice:
1. Make sure that all beneficiaries have copies of your will/trust. We will be doing this over the next two months, giving copies to each of our children the next time we see them.
2. Make sure that all beneficiaries know where you keep important documents such as the title to the house, income tax forms, passwords, accounts, titles to cars and any other piece of property that will need to be dealt with after your death. This includes retirement income, stocks and bonds, military benefits, Social Secutiry.
3. Make sure that the executor knows what your wishes are in terms of disposition of property. In our case, we have not yet made this clear, but will be doing so. Even if you think no one will want your “stuff”, provide for it in your will/trust. But do not sweat the small stuff, such as lamps, electronics and furniture that will be old by that time, as well as decorations, knickknacks and other goodies that you have sitting in cabinets, on shelves and hidden in bedrooms. and so on.
4. Make sure that documents are readily available for any contracts that you have ongoing, such as cable, Internet, phone, so that they can be cancelled at your death.
5. Make sure that beneficiaries understand how “stuff” will be distributed after your death. For example, will they sell everything of value, such as the house and cars and equally divide the proceeds? Makes sense. But what about all the rest of the things in your house? No one will want our clothes, so It can be donated wherever. But what if two people want the china and silver? Who gets first pick? We did stipulate this in our will, but recently discovered that our will is about 15 years old. It needs to be rewritten as it is no longer valid.
6. Make sure that your medical directives are on file with your insurer, in our case Kaiser, and tape a “cheat sheet” to a wall in the house so that medical personnel arriving in an emergency can find it and follow your wishes. For example, I do not want a tracheotomy that will permanently take away my voice and my ability to eat and drink. I do not want to be attached to a ventilator for any extended period of time. But where is this information in my home? Right now, nowhere.
7. Understand that no matter how clear you think things are, that there will be misunderstandings, confusion, and even possible bickering after your death. No one will want my Red Hat Society hats, right? But what about my Yosemite hat, jacket and sweatshirt? What about my husband’s A’s jacket and his Boy Scout memorabilia? Sounds like junk to me, but it might become a point of contention. So it might be good to ask beneficiaries to read over your documents and see if anything needs to be clarified now, before you die and things get nasty.
8. Begin the conversation about your wishes/hopes when you can no longer live safely in your home. This is a tough one. I do not want to be a burden to my children, so what happens if one of them invites me to move in? Especially if I am suffering from dementia and will be an emotional and physical burden? I would say no, if I had the ability to do so. Put me in a home, preferably away from the SF Bay Area where things are too expensive, and let me live out the rest of my days there. We have yet to have this discussion with our children, but as we are both getting older, we need to do it soon.
I hope this has been helpful to you and saves your beneficiaries heartache and despair.