There's More To Estate Planning Than Just The Will

From the New York Times by Alina Tugend
September 5, 2014

WILLS, health care directives, lists of passwords to online accounts. By now, most people know they should prepare these items — even if they haven’t yet — and make them available to trusted family members before the unthinkable, yet inevitable, happens.

But the information family and friends will need when a loved one dies go far beyond those much-talked-about documents, and having them can make the end of life just a little less painful for those who remain behind.

Consider the experience of John J. Scroggin, who runs a tax business and estate-planning firm in Atlanta. His father, who died in 2001, wanted to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.

“I called Arlington and they told me I needed his DD 214 to bury him at the cemetery.” Mr. Scroggin recalled. “I had never heard of a DD 214, but they told me if I could not find it, they would put him in cold storage for six months while they found it.”

After a frantic search, “I found Dad’s DD 214 as a bookmark in a book,” he said. The Arlington burial took place. The lesson: Add military discharge papers to the documents you hand over to family members or trusted friends.

Maureen Nelson, of Walnut Creek, Calif., had a less satisfying outcome. “My mom died and told both my sister and I that she was a member of the Neptune Society, which cremates the deceased and scatters the ashes at sea,” she said.

“We called to have them pick her up from the convalescent hospital where she died,” she explained. “They came. But when they checked their records they couldn’t find her name, so they left. My sister said my mom even showed her the paperwork. But she must not have sent it in.” The lesson? If you’ve made your own burial arrangements, make sure you’ve shared the details.

The legal and emotional complexity of end-of-life planning went from theoretical to real for me recently when I began helping my 89-year-old father gather his documents. One of the many things I learned: He would like a funeral with military honors, having served in two wars. So Mr. Scroggin’s advice had special resonance.

Tips on preparing for the end of life can fill a book — as Erik A. Dewey, a writer from Tulsa, Okla., knows firsthand. It was with great difficulty that he sorted through heaps of paper and online information after his father died at age 65, a week from retirement.

He decided to share what he had learned by writing “The Big Book of Everything.”

His book, which is free online, has been downloaded about 1,000 times a month since it went up about five years ago, he said, and also includes data that people need to keep track of while they’re alive, like school and employment history and previous addresses.

Preparing for your own death is “tedious and not very pleasant,” acknowledged Mark Gavagan, who wrote the workbook, “12 Critical Things Your Family Needs to Know.”

“But if something happened to you or a spouse, would your loved ones know what you have, where it is and what your wishes are?”

While getting these items in order is more urgent for the elderly, all of us need to do it. Ask yourself if you can check off some of the most basic items.

WILL OR LIVING TRUST A will, of course, distributes your assets after you die. With a living trust, the assets you have transferred to the trust (your home, bank accounts and stocks, for example) are administered for your benefit during your lifetime, and then transferred to your beneficiaries when you die.

Despite common advice that a living trust is better than a will because you don’t need to go through probate — the court process that inventories and distributes a person’s property after death — that’s not necessarily true, said Sally Hurme, an elder law attorney with AARP.

“The benefits of trusts are overplayed and the disadvantages of probate are exaggerated,” said Ms. Hurme, who is author of the forthcoming “ABA/AARP Checklist for My Family: A Guide to My History, Financial Plans and Final Wishes.”

“There are certain circumstances when trusts are appropriate, such as if you have out-of-state real estate or a family business that will continue to be run,” she said. Otherwise, she said, a will is fine. If you have any doubt, it’s best to research it further or consult a lawyer.

If you decide to write up a will without a lawyer, using online forms, for example, be sure you do it right; a badly executed will can be worse than none at all. That’s what Lisa Kinsman’s sister found out after her husband was killed in a plane crash when he was 28.

“He had drawn up a will just before he left on the trip” that claimed his life, Ms. Kinsman, of Larchmont, N.Y., said, “but he had filled out some things incorrectly, so all his property would have ended up going to his sister instead of his wife.” She had to go through a lengthy court process to get what would have gone to her without any will.

HEALTH CARE POWERS Both a living will and a durable health care power of attorney concern medical decisions, but there are some important differences.

A living will, also called an advance directive in some states, is usually limited to deathbed concerns. It enables you to declare your desire to not have life-prolonging measures used if there is no hope of recovery. A durable power of attorney for health care, on the other hand, covers all health care decisions, and lasts only as long as you are incapable of making decisions for yourself. You can, however, set out specific provisions in the power of attorney telling your agent how you would like them to act on your behalf.

POWER OF ATTORNEY This is granted to someone you trust who can take care of your finances. Unlike a regular power of attorney, a durable one means the person can act even if you become incapacitated. It can be the same person as the health care power of attorney but in the best of all worlds, it probably shouldn’t be, as they require different skill sets, Ms. Hurme said.

“A health care proxy has got to be someone you can look in the eye and say, ‘You’ve got to be willing to pull the plug in the face of opposition from other people,’ ” Mr. Gavagan said.

But it’s not enough to write these up and put them in a drawer, or even worse in a safe-deposit box where no one has access to them.

“They should be scattered as far and wide as possible — your spouse, your children and your doctors should have your directives,” Ms. Hurme said. Her organization offers printable advance directive forms by state on its website. also provides information and forms.

Aside from the heavy-duty legal documents, here are some other recommendations from Mr. Dewey and other experts:

List passwords and logins for everything. This may be obvious, but it bears repeating. Margie Billian, a hairdresser in Rockville, Md., said of her father: “On his deathbed, he was giving me passwords and telling me where items were. This was not enough.”

Ms. Billian’s father’s business was also audited by the Internal Revenue Service after his death, which is why it’s vital to keep old tax documents for several years after someone has died.

Some things others have found helpful that aren’t so obvious include a medical history, so children and grandchildren know if there is a history of allergies, for example, or diabetes.

Make sure you list what companies and services direct-debit from your bank accounts and credit cards so they don’t continue after those accounts are closed. Mr. Scroggin said a client’s children closed their father’s bank account when he couldn’t handle his own affairs. They didn’t know an insurance policy worth over $1 million was kept active by direct debits from that account. It was terminated for nonpayment.

Don’t forget the most mundane things, like how your house works: the alarm, the sprinkler system, the key to the shed out back. Look at your house as if you were renting it to strangers for the summer and needed to leave instructions, Mr. Gavagan said.

And finally, many people suggested, think about writing a letter or letters to those closest to you to be read after your death.

“If I had one more letter from my father,” Mr. Dewey said, “It would have meant the world to me.”

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