Of the things we’d rather not think about, death certainly tops the list. But whether you see the end of life in spiritual, practical, or philosophical terms, it’s something we all must confront eventually. In the words of one person’s living will, “Death is as much a reality as birth, growth, maturity, and old age—it is the one certainty.”
The unpleasantness of the topic can make planning for death easy to put off. In fact, the vast majority of Americans will leave this earth without ever having prepared a will. But when the reality of death is fast approaching, perhaps through a serious illness, we should seize the opportunity to prepare for what lies ahead.
Here are five things to consider doing:
1. Update your estate plan. Having a current will ensures that the assets you leave behind go to the people or organizations you care about most. If you want to provide for a young person or someone with special needs, you will can set up a trust so their inheritance will be managed for them.
A will also enables you to appoint someone you trust to settle your estate and divide up your household items and other personal property. Guardians can be appointed for any minor children, and you can even say who should take care of your pets.
An estate plan also includes a durable power of attorney and advance directive for health care. These documents allow you to designate your spouse, partner, or a close friend to manage your finances and health care if you become unable to.
When the reality of death is fast approaching, we should seize the opportunity to prepare for what lies ahead.
If you already have these documents, make sure they are still current. In some cases, out-of-date documents can be worse than no documents at all. It’s a good idea to have an estate-planning attorney review your paperwork and suggest possible revisions.
2. Inventory your digital assets. Your will and power of attorney should include provisions for your “digital assets.” Think online accounts, frequent flyer miles, and passwords for your smartphone and other electronics. With proper planning, you can bequeath some of these assets under your will. You can also authorize someone to manage your social media and other online accounts during a final illness. Just be sure to prepare a list of your user names and passwords, so your designated agent can access these assets easily.
3. Check the beneficiaries on your life insurance and retirement accounts. For most of us, the bulk of our wealth lies in assets that name a beneficiary, like life insurance policies and IRAs, 401(k)s, and other retirement accounts. These assets will transfer directly to the named beneficiary upon your death—regardless of what your will might say. So make sure your beneficiary designations are up to date. Talk to a lawyer about directing these assets into a trust for a child or someone who doesn’t manage money well.
4. Consider making charitable donations now. Estate-tax exemptions are at historic highs—$5 million in Maryland and $11.4 million at the federal level. This means that unless you leave behind more than these amounts, there won’t be any estate taxes due upon your death. As a consequence, any gifts you leave to charity under your will probably won’t provide a tax savings. So rather than charitable bequests under your will, consider donating to charities now, when these gifts may be deductible from your personal income taxes. Talk to your accountant or a tax attorney for guidance.
5. Prepare a statement of your final wishes. Leaving instructions as to your funeral and burial preferences can ensure that your farewell is meaningful to your loved ones and reflects your wishes and personal beliefs. Details can include hymns and readings for the memorial, instructions for the disposal of your remains, and even guidelines for announcements in the newspaper or online.
Especially in the LGBT community, many of us leave behind detailed instructions as to our final wishes. But even if you have only a few ideas about your memorial service or the disposition of your remains, committing these thoughts to paper will be an enormous gift to your loves ones when the time comes.
It is never too soon to take care of matters like these. When the need becomes urgent, your advance planning will help provide some peace and comfort for the road ahead.
Lee Carpenter is an Estates & Trusts attorney at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. This article is intended to provide general information about legal topics and should not be construed as legal advice. For qualified legal counsel contact Lee Carpenter at Lee.Carpenter@saul.com or 410.332.8626.