Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Providing Loved Ones with a Postmortem Checklist

     As we discuss estate planning both here in the blog and in our practice, we take pains to reinforce the idea that estate planning is more than drafting and signing a set of documents that will sit in a drawer, forgotten, until someone passes away. Estate planning is an ongoing process that requires clients to take an active role in order to be most effective. An important example of a client responsibility in the process is the preparation of a Postmortem Guide to assist their loved ones in dealing with the practical results of their death.
     While loved ones know to take care of obvious tasks, such as making funeral arrangements and gathering assets, less obvious concerns including providing notice to Social Security, canceling subscriptions, dealing with credit cards, and shutting off utilities often are forgotten. By taking the time to prepare a Postmortem Guide, it is possible to provide loved ones with a checklist of required actions and all of the information needed to complete those actions.
     Following every estate plan signing we send our clients a letter that includes a list of tasks to complete following a death, including:
  •          Making funeral arrangements
  •          Meeting with attorneys and accountants
  •          Giving notice to Social Security
  •          Giving notice to Veterans Administration (if necessary)
  •          Giving notice to Pension Providers
  •          Giving notice to creditors
  •          Securing the contents of any safe deposit boxes
  •          Gathering assets and personal effects
  •          Maintaining the residence
  •          Continuing the operation of existing businesses

Along with that list, we include a form that provides the client with an organized structure for providing their loved ones with the information needed to complete those tasks. This information includes:
  •         Space for names and phone numbers of the individuals the client has named in those documents.
  •          A section to list existing creditors, such as credit cards, mortgage companies, and other outstanding loans
  •          The names and phone numbers for the client’s advisors, including brokers, insurance agents, the doctors, and spiritual leaders
  •          An area to provide instructions regarding funeral and burial arrangements
  •          An area to provide information regarding the location of assets
  •          A section to list the names and phone numbers of utility providers
  •          A section for online and other passwords

     We encourage our clients to complete this form and keep it with their estate planning documents and then to inform those people designated in the documents of the location where the documents are located.
     Occasionally a client wishes to provide their loved ones with final words of wisdom or an explanation of the reasoning used in making gifting decisions. In those circumstances, we discourage the inclusion of such information in the estate plan documents, so as to minimize any non-legal language that potentially can lead to confusion in the distribution of an estate. Instead, we suggest the client write a separate letter to their loved ones with this information and include it in the same information package as the to do list and pertinent information form.
     While it may seem obvious that having this information handy will assist loved ones in an emotionally trying time, many of our clients express thanks to us for providing them with a format to articulate the information and for encouraging them to sit down and organize the information as part of the planning process. As we have previously said, estate planning involves more than drafting documents. We see it as the duty of estate planning attorney to continue to guide their client through the lifelong process of planning, including organization, proper funding, and regularly updating documents, thus ensuring that the client’s loved ones do not face any more problems than necessary during an already difficult time in their lives.

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