One Last Thing

Richard Quinn

ONLY ABOUT 40% of Americans have a will, including just 58% of those ages 53 to 71. The good news is, among those of us 72 and above, the percentage is much higher—81%.

Putting in place a will, trust documents, powers of attorney and so on is no easy task. I’ve been through the process twice and it’s not fun, mostly because a good attorney will ask a lot of uncomfortable questions you’d probably rather not think about—like, do you want to designate someone to pull the plug, or which of your children should be executor, or should you pick someone else entirely?

And then there’s the lawyer’s prodding to be very specific about who gets what, when and how—because you don’t want your children fighting about it. I have a beach house that I hope will stay in the family. But what if one of my kids wants no part of it? What if one child wants his or her share in cash right away or perhaps two years after I’m gone? What if they can’t afford to maintain the place? It took some serious discussions with my attorney to figure it all out.

Even after you’ve dealt with all the formal legal documents, there’s still the nitty-gritty practical stuff—which you might include in a letter offering final instructions (and, yes, I do mean final). It’s a document all members of your family should know exists, as well as where to find it. They might even review it ahead of time, so there’s no confusion. Many of these steps should be handled by the executor—and may require a death certificate. Here are 15 items in my final instructions:

  1. A list of the credit cards that need to be cancelled—but before you do so, here are all the businesses that automatically charge each card each month.
  2. Details of my bank accounts and the businesses that auto-deduct from each account each month.
  3. Where my investments are held. In my letter, I‘ve attached screenshots of each account with all the contact information.
  4. The beneficiaries on my 401(k) plan, plus who to contact to make the claim.
  5. Before you touch the IRAs or 401(k) plan, contact a tax advisor about the best way to minimize taxes.
  6. My investments are designed to provide additional regular income to Mom. Before you go and change stuff, make sure her ongoing income is adequate.
  7. My pension provides a survivor annuity for Mom. I’ve included the number to call to get payments started.
  8. Notify Social Security immediately. That way, you won’t end up owing money, plus you can get Mom’s survivor benefits started.
  9. Details of my two life insurance policies, as well as contact information for the insurance companies.
  10. Location of the safe deposit box, plus where to find the key.
  11. Where to find my will and trust.
  12. Details of a loan to a family member. This sum should be deducted from his share of the estate.
  13. I promised the old grandfather clock to a family member. Make sure that happens—and no fighting about it.
  14. A list of subscriptions and memberships to cancel.
  15. I want to be cremated. These truly are final instructions.

This is just a sampling. My actual instructions are more detailed. Remember, the idea is to help your family deal with all this stuff. Got a pen and paper? Start writing.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Over CoffeeGet the PointPoor Judgment and How to Blow It. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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Langston Holland
Langston Holland
4 years ago

Great post again Dick, thank you. The decision about your beach home is something that probably happens often, but I don’t see much written about it beyond theory. Hope the following is helpful.

Giving a vacation home to multiple heirs is a tough sport from what I’ve experienced. Real estate, especially improved real estate usually has ties to the heart that are deeper than fungible assets like money and stocks. These ties usually benefit the original owner most and form part of the intangible value that justified the expenses involved. As you alluded to, these intangibles often are not shared equally among beneficiaries, leading to difficulties coordinating annual and one-off expenses, not to mention (such a dumb phrase), delaying the conversion of the illiquid asset into cash.

What to do? The cop-out to sell and divide the invested proceeds through your estate is probably going to result in the greatest happiness and harmony to all. Ouch. When my family was confronted with a similar situation recently, the cop-out was the result after a bunch of entertaining (thankfully) parrying:

My parents and widowed aunt equally owned a vacation home they and their eight children (four in each family) had been using for about fifty years. Last year a proclamation was made throughout the kingdom that this property was going to be given outright to the eight children if they wanted it, and of course came up with an ownership plan that was agreeable to all. You know where this is going. 🙂

Four children wanted cash ASAP. One child was in love with the property to the point where it was part of the family – like another child or even more important – like a dog! (joke, buy Dave Barry’s “Lessons from Lucy”) The final three children were fine with whatever everyone else wanted. My Dad, the wisest man on earth, gave us nine months to sort through it and make a decision. The eight recipients are a bit of a microcosm of America: some industrious, some lazy, some liberal, some conservative and some with a bulletproof sense of entitlement. Some of us were getting tired of cleaning the place up twice each time we visited, once to deal with the last visitors and the second time due to our stay. I can personally report great relief when the clock beat the proposals and the property was sold with the proceeds split between the estates of the original owners.

The end. All will live happily ever after, and if not it’s their own stinkin’ fault. 🙂

Jonathan Clements
Jonathan Clements
4 years ago

Thanks, Langston, for the reality check!

Mik Barbasol
Mik Barbasol
4 years ago

Should charitable giving also be included ?

Andrew Lindeman
Andrew Lindeman
3 years ago

Uh, don’t forget to stipulate what to do with the ashes! That’s important too.

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