Who Gets My Stuff?
The past few weeks, we have focused on issues surrounding readiness for death or disability, when others will have to make key decisions, find and deal with relevant paperwork, and take charge of business that may not have been their job beforehand. This last installment is on some thoughts about the disposition of assets. This is not expert advice, as we’re not experts in this field, but we’ve seen things! Hopefully, this article will be an exercise in “preaching to the choir.”
We were both fortunate in not having any fights associated with the distribution of our parents' stuff, but many families are driven apart by disappointment, anger, greed, betrayal-- a whole array of not-good feelings that can occur when the distribution of assets is seen as unfair in some way.
Regardless of whether you have a lot or a little, MAKE A WILL. Too many families avoid doing this because they think it’s bad luck or too lugubrious or too painful to think of their own demise. But, just like taxes, death is a sure thing, and we can’t take our stuff with us.
Like the funeral, the will is actually not for you, so much as it is about you. It is a document that is essential to your family. We’re all going to go sometime, and things happen, so be prepared. As a corollary, review your existing will from time to time to be sure it is up to date and still reflects your wishes. Life changes for your beneficiaries, too.
Proactivity in making a will is not just good business sense, either. Having the time to talk over things with your spouse, children, or significant others is an act of compassion. Clarity on the financial aftermath of a death is so helpful. While there is always legal stuff to work out, the surviving spouse or other family members know where they stand, and if there is some neediness, this can be a real stress-reliever.
On the other hand, having no will just leaves behind a mess for the family to figure out, and the potential for fighting and hurt feelings, not to mention possible legal wrangling, is much greater. Its also much more time-consuming. State law may require (?) that more assets go to the state than to the family. Don’t leave this to chance.
One last caveat: your will is not a weapon; it’s a gift. We’ve all seen the murder mysteries where the wealthy and curmudgeonly patriarch of the family manipulates his family with threats to change his will (and then gets bumped off unceremoniously!) Be clear; be fair; be kind.
It seems logical to name your spouse as executor, but your spouse may not have the gifts necessary to the task or the emotional strength to act in this capacity at the time. Who do you trust to deal with the details of this task? Who will have the time to do whatever needs to be done? Who is good with follow-through? Your attorney or another professional may be a good choice, especially if qualified family members live some distance from you.
What to Include
Many specific items can be identified “in bulk” (I leave all my tools to my son; all my jewelry to my daughter). As is often the case, you might leave all real property to your spouse and only designate how to divide those assets among others if the primary beneficiary predeceases you.
Items of value may better be named and described (Grandma Shivelhood’s antique emerald broach) but an attachment with specific bequeaths can help your executor. Knickknacks, for example, that have value only as heirlooms can be listed. (Some people put labels in inconspicuous places to identify who gets it.) Of course, you can also gift these items to the person you prefer before you die.
Assets that have named beneficiaries are not included in a will (such as insurance policies and some investment instruments), as that step is already cared for. If all assets fit that category, there may be no need for a will.
It may be that there is someone who could reasonably expect to be a beneficiary, but whom you choose not to include. (Ouch.) For the sake of clarity, and to avoid any contest, name that person with a brief statement of exclusion.
Keep It Simple
Your attorney will best be able to help you figure out how to bequeath your assets in the most unambiguous way. Rather, for example, than leaving percentages of stuff to your heirs, designate specific amounts or particular investment assets. Insurance policies, which are not a part of your will, may be better devices for the percentage distribution because the value of the policy is known and doesn’t change.
Minor Beneficiaries and Trusts
You may choose to include minor children as direct recipients. Your attorney can help you determine how to set up a trust or other method to ensure that the bequest is administered properly. If you have direct responsibility for minor children, consider having a plan for who would be responsible for their care, should you no longer be able to provide it.
If a beneficiary is someone whom you think may be financially irresponsible, a trust or other instrument can allow you to make the gift in a way that offers some control on access to it.
Gifts to Charity
Churches, charities, foundations, relief agencies, educational institutions, and others are always glad of donations, and a gift from your estate is an easy way to give a meaningful (and perhaps sizable) contribution. Those institutions will be glad to provide guidance for how to provide a gift from your estate.
I know why families were created with all their imperfections. They humanize you. They are made to make you forget yourself occasionally, so that the beautiful balance of life is not destroyed.
Type your paragraph here.
In every conceivable manner, the family is a link to our past, bridge to our future.
BE PREPARED: THE FUNERAL
Different faith traditions, ethnic groups, and regions will have their own particular funeral practices, but some elements are common. (As a pastor in northern Maryland, I was surprised at the different tweaks used by a funeral home in Shrewsbury, PA, just up the road a piece!)
My experience is as a United Methodist, but the comments here are, again, fairly general.
Most of us don’t make ALL our own funeral arrangements, though I have certainly heard of (and attended) services that were planned in advance, to the last sentence, by the deceased. Personally, I’m not a great fan of the “total preparation” plan, because the funeral is not for the deceased; it’s for his or her family and friends. With that said, some direction is often helpful, as the person making the arrangements is likely to be
1) upset and/or distracted
2) very busy
3) unaware of the practices of the faith or tradition of the deceased
4) overwhelmed by the whole array of choices at a funeral home
5) unable to agree with others who are participating in the planning
6) or, you fill in the blank.
Funeral arrangements are not at the top of anyone’s list, and having to do it after a loved one is gone adds to the pressure. The less time we have to do things, the more often we end up making choices we wish could have had more thought. So, here are a few things that you may want to decide yourself or guide someone else to do.
1) Choose a funeral home/director in advance.Having to find someone in real time means you can’t “shop.” Not all funeral homes are created equal, and you want to be sure the establishment will help you compassionately and thoroughly, will not thrust costs and services upon you that you don’t want, and will charge you reasonably for the services you do want.
2) Buy a burial site now.Don’t wait until you need one; they only get more expensive. (The lots my father bought for $100 each in 1954 in Silver Spring sell now for at least $7000 apiece. I have four of them and am willing to let them go for less than the going rate!) Keep the deed with your other important documents.
3) Decide with your family on whether to be buried or cremated. If cremated, what do you want done with the cremains? (Be reasonable.) If you are an organ donor or if you want to donate your body to science, that should be decided now, of course.
4) Talk to your spouse, children, or trustee about a cost range. (You will be just as buried for $10,000 as for $20,000.) Be honest about the statement you want your funeral to make: Will it be “you”; that is, in keeping with the values you espoused and lived by?
5) Think about what valuables you are willing to send with you. You may want to be buried with your wedding ring, for example, but a wedding or engagement ring with diamonds or Great Aunt Tillie’s emerald broach may better stay with a family member. If valuables are a part of the funeral outfit, have the pastor or a friend watch to be sure they are still in the casket when it’s closed for the last time. (Just saying…)
6) If you can, consider designating a “funeral outfit.” Not all spouses are fashion-conscious or thinking well at the time, so deciding yourself what clothes will work may be a big help. Your loved one should also ask the funeral home what clothes they require; some want everything, from the skin out. Others, not so much.
7) Identify the pastor / person who will officiate. If you are part of a congregation, that’s probably not an issue. If not, who has the ‘stage presence’ and other gifts to lead a service of remembrance? Ask in advance if he or she is willing and can be available.
8) Decide if you want a funeral or memorial service.It may be easier to have a private burial and then have a service or other remembrance when it is convenient for people to gather. You may not want a service of any kind, but this isn’t for you; it’s about you. Your family needs to do what they need to do to remember and grieve.
9) Make a list of hymns, poems, prayers, Scriptures, or other elements of a funeral that are meaningful to you. You don’t need everything, and giving the family leeway for what they want or need is helpful. Remember, the service is for them.
10) If there are persons you want to participate, name them. Give them permission to say no. Not everyone can be ‘up front,’ especially at a highly emotional time. If you will have more helpers than can be accommodated, consider how to spread around the duties—ushers, pallbearers, readers, singers, guest book attendant, and so on. Work with your family in advance to decide how to decide.
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On Page 7
Who Gets My Stuff?
Be Prepared: The Funeral