As the adage goes, you can’t take it with you. Whether you
want to spend your last dime or leave it all behind when you go, creating a comprehensive
plan for your estate begins earlier than you might think. If you don’t
have children or obvious heirs, documenting your wishes and making them accessible
will help ensure those wishes are fulfilled should something happen to you.
“If today were your last day on earth, who would get your
stuff?” says Jean-Luc Bourdon, a certified public accountant in Santa Barbara,
California, and a member of American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’
personal financial planning executive committee. It’s a question he poses to
all of his clients, especially those without kids. While parents may think
their children are the answer, Bourdon says people without children need to
plan more carefully.
Many people with children create a will to ensure their
children are cared for, and in the absence of a will, next of kin are the
obvious heirs. But for people without children, a will can be just
as important, and it can easily be overlooked.
Whether you're planning to leave money to a favorite
charity, establish a trust for a treasured pet as Bourdon and his wife have
done or set funds aside for loved ones, creating a will, even as early as
your 30s and 40s, is key to ensuring that your hard-earned money isn’t taken by
the government after you’ve gone. But planning doesn’t just mean writing a
will. Sound planning encompasses a wide range of documents that cover not just
financial wishes, but directions for everything from health care
directives to long-term care insurance to living wills and even organ
Frances Hopkins, a nursing student in Sacramento,
California, says that such conversations are natural ones to have when
discussing financial planning, because the soaring costs of prolonged health
care and often-protracted court cases that arise when there’s a disagreement
over someone’s wishes can be avoided with clear instructions. However, she
says, people often avoid having the conversations. Hopkins says the more
information you can provide in a health care directive, the better. It doesn’t
have to be fancy, just thorough.
But for someone to act on your behalf in the event of an
emergency, you must first give them access to your medical files, and you
should do so when you’re healthy enough to pass along the permission. Hopkins
says even able-bodied, healthy and mentally sound individuals should prepare
for the worst-case scenario.
Laws and forms for everything from wills to advance
directives vary by state, but a variety of free or inexpensive online
resources – like caringinfo.org, LawDepot, LegalZoom.com or
individual state legislature websites – can provide templates.
Whether you want to leave anything behind or make sure
you’ve used it all in the pursuit of a well-lived life, creating and
communicating a thorough plan for your wishes is key to making sure those
wishes are met. And as soon as the plan is created, make sure the right
people – trusted loved ones, doctors, lawyers and anyone else who might
need to know your plans – have access to it.
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