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Make plans, don’t keep them a secret


By Joel Dresang

On a dull morning with a winter storm in the forecast, I woke early with a slight panic.

We were driving that day to a relative’s funeral. The funeral was three hours away, and with the weather, it promised to be a full-day trip.

The relative died following a stroke, as far as anyone could tell. He had lived with his wife out of state. She preceded him in death by mere weeks. In fact, it seems his own demise began with her death after a long illness.

We’re not sure about the details because he lost capacity to communicate what happened. He had enough wits about him to call 911 after his wife died, but the authorities found him so disoriented when they arrived that they hospitalized him.

He had no living children, and the siblings who survived him had no clue what his end-of-life wishes were. He had been a successful business owner who sold his enterprise decades earlier. But he kept his affairs to himself, so no one knew whether he had a will or even who else would know.

The thought that startled me early that morning of the funeral was that if something happened to my wife and me on our drive, our children might not know how to access our plans for how our assets should be distributed.

Before we left the house that morning, I jotted a quick note and placed it prominently on the kitchen counter. It made a cryptic reference to the location of our documents.

Less than half of American adults have a will saying how they want their money and estate handled after they die, according to 30 years of Gallup polls. Such lack of planning flooded probate courts as the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll, unexpectedly imposing death on the unprepared.

Other Money Talk articles from Joel Dresang

People know they should be prepared. They just keep putting it off. They procrastinate, just as most do with preparing their tax returns. But at least tax deadlines are published and can include extensions.

The surveys show adults are more likely to have a will the more education they have, the higher their income and the more advanced their age. But COVID has reminded us that death does not discriminate.

Our relative’s story illustrates how critical it is to let someone know about your plans. If you have a will filed in an attorney’s office and no one knows to contact that office and that office doesn’t know you’ve died, it’s like a tree falling in a deserted forest. It might just as well never have happened.

Then there’s the more common scenario: People make plans for their estate, but they fail to tell their beneficiaries what to expect.

“I know that a number of individuals don’t feel comfortable talking about that type of planning with their kids,” Steve Giles said in a recent Money Talk Podcast, “but as professionals that see this on a daily basis, some of the most difficult conversations that we have are with those next of kin, wondering why Mom and Dad didn’t tell them about that account they had at some bank that now turned up three years later. Or how much money they may have tucked aside, and they could have afforded that extra care that they needed at the end of their lifetime to make sure that they were comfortable.

“So, have those conversations with your families,” Steve concluded. “Make sure that your estate planning house is in order. And don’t shy away from sharing with your loved ones your wishes – not only while you’re still around but also when you’re not around.”

I suspect I’m more comfortable than my kids with these conversations. But we’ve had them before. When we were together for the holidays, I told them about the panicked note I had left them. And I instructed them – together, so they can help each other remember – how to get our documents, including those that are online.

If nothing else, we want to make sure our daughters know which financial and legal firms we have worked with so they can rely on professionals in those offices to pursue our wishes when we’re gone.

To that end, I have uploaded a few key documents (our marital property agreement, durable power of attorney and medical power of attorney) to our secure web portal at Landaas & Company. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority advised investors in a recent article to let their advisors in on their estate plans:

“It’s helpful to engage your firm about such matters—and to do so sooner rather than later.”

A revelation of winter hiking is the transparency of the woods when the vegetation is dormant. Absent the veil of leaves and underbrush, I see more of the skeletal structure of the plant life beside the paths I tread.

Weeks after the funeral, our dog and I tramped through shin-deep snow in a woods I have known for nearly four decades. I was struck by the number of dislocated limbs that had fallen lodged into the branches of still nascent trees. In some instances, entire dead trees were suspended from their final meeting with the earth by a sturdy sapling that caught them.

I thought again of our deceased relative, who must have worked hard to establish his business and build his wealth but whose final instructions became something of a burden on family members trying to sort through his estate.

I couldn’t imagine that he intended so much of his assets to be spent on the lawyers and investigators needed to locate his documents. Certainly, he would have preferred the family to be able to focus more on celebrating his life and that of his wife.

In the stillness of the woods, I hoped that I would not end as one of those fallen trees, deadwood, encumbering the growth of those around me.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

Learn more
Wishes for sharing, safekeeping, by Joel Dresang
A testament to update before you’re late, by Joel Dresang
Naming beneficiaries: Communicate clearly, a Money Talk Video with Mike Hoelzl
Keeping family in the financial loopa Money Talk Video with Isabelle Wiemero
Inevitable as taxes, yet rarely planned for, by Joel Dresang
Estate Planning FAQs, American Bar Association
Estate Planning: Power of Attorney, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority
Help for agents under a power of attorney, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Plan Now to Smooth the Transfer of Your Brokerage Account Assets on Death, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority
When a Brokerage Account Holder Dies – What Comes Next? by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority
(initially posted Jan. 30, 2023)

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