We talked about part one of making your estate plan, but don’t let your eyes glaze over yet! This shit is really important, and we’ve still got to talk about the rest of it…
Before you start to make your plan, there are several considerations you should take before you set everything in writing.
Be emotionally prepared. Talking about your own death can be very emotionally taxing. This process can rake up feelings about people, events, and your stuff that you never realized you cared about. You may find that something you deal with on a daily basis is actually fraught with emotion. If you and your spouse are both making plans, you may not agree; your plans do not have to look like each other’s (or anyone else’s plan for that matter). If your marriage is not legally recognized where you live, be ready to confront laws which will not reflect your family or ideals.
Your family — the real and the estranged
This is the time to take inventory of the people in your life. It may seem deceptively easy to write down who is in your family, but consider step-relations, non-traditional family relationships, and close friends.
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Who is in my biological family?
- Who do I want to get something?
- Is there someone I never want involved?
- Does someone know I have a plan?
- Are there any last words or sentiments that I want someone to know?
Your money — not just your bank accounts!
Money can be a potential emotional land mine. Do your best to distance yourself and treat it like just another object in your household. Write down all your bank accounts, retirement accounts, insurance policies, government benefits — anything with an account number or that has significant value to you. Consider your lifestyle: do you donate or give to charity regularly? If you have ever been part of a lawsuit, or are receiving a money judgment, this is important information to include in your plan.
Your things — who gets your shit!?
It is likely that your stuff and who gets it is the most important thing on your mind. You want your sister to have your vinyl collection, your friend to get your cat. Remember to include your digital assets like your blog, or your copyrighted art work. If you have certain online accounts, make sure you have a list of the ones that you want closed or managed if you cannot do it yourself.
Telling your loved ones what stuff you have and where it is will make the process easier for them. Think about it if you were in their situation and you were managing someone’s stuff after they have passed away — you do not want to be taking on a full investigation while you are grieving. Make it easy for them: leave a list where they can find it.
Control over the life you no longer have (creepy!)
The basic estate plan gives you control over your entire life if you are not there to do it. But you do not have to give over all control. Think about who it is you are giving the control to: how much can they handle? How much do you trust the person who has to do it all for you? Knowing you can dictate exactly how much control other people have feels very empowering. This is your stuff and you can say what happens to it.
Making it stick — committing your plan to paper
There are a myriad of options when it comes to preparing these documents. At one end, sometimes a handwritten letter will be enough to let your loved ones know what you want. Most localities have some forms available online, they may be from local legal societies or mixed in with information for retirees.
If you are looking for free advice or forms, you may have to dig or call a legal service hotline. Unintentionally, this may be the most difficult and time-consuming, but is available free.
Online legal document preparation is usually inexpensive, and usually easy, but is not recommended for complicated plans. The website’s end-user license agreement should give you an idea of what is possible through their online services. If you cannot figure out if their services will do what you want, avoid that site. Many of these sites have been confirmed legally binding, so be careful choosing this option and that the information you input into the site’s forms is accurate.
The more expensive option, but the best for complicated plans that do more than the simple function of saying who takes care of your affairs, is an attorney. They will be there to hold your hand through the whole process, and should help your loved ones through the process once you are no longer around. Going to an attorney is also a good plan for non-traditional families, and should give you good advice on protecting all of your rights in the event someone is incapacitated.