What to do before you die? That could turn into a pretty long list but we're actually thinking of some rather specific things you should do while alive so that things go smoothly once you're gone -- specifically, writing a will, putting it someplace handy and telling your loved ones where it is, among a few other very simple steps.
Besides the reviews people submit to our site, we get a daily landslide of emails asking for help with various misfortunes. We really can't deal with individual situations or we wouldn't get our real work done but there are certain questions that come up year after year after year -- and a constant topic is problems resulting from death.
Maybe it's time for a Deadly Do's and Don'ts review? Broadly speaking, there are two classes of consumers when it comes to dealing with decedents: the living and the dead. Here are a few pointers for each.
This, of course, is not legal advice to you. This is general consumer information. Only a lawyer that you have retained can advise you. Every situation is different. You should never make major decisions based on something you read on the Internet, including this.
OK, no, you're not dead yet but this is what you need to do so things go smoothly when you are.
Decide what you want. You can leave your assets to anyone you want -- relatives, your old school, your church, the local animal shelter or literally anyone or anything else. Decide now. You can't do it after the funeral.
Write a will. Discuss it with your family members so they know what's in it. Yes, you can write it yourself from one of those online kits but if you have more than a few sticks to rub together, you should have a local attorney do it for you. You only die once -- don't cheap out.
Pick an executor. This is the person who will be in charge of administering your estate after you have shuffled off. It can be anyone but should be someone you trust who lives in your state and has their wits about them, not crazy Aunt Sally from Berkeley.
Pick a guardian, if needed. If you have minor children, disabled adult children or others for whom you are responsible, you will need to name a responsible person to be their guardian when you are no longer in the picture.
Put your will in a safe, accessible place. This does not mean a safe deposit box. When you die, your assets will be frozen pending probate and no one will be able to open your safe deposit box. Keep the will at home, tell a few family members exactly where it is and make a few copies to keep elsewhere. Your lawyer will not want to keep the original and should not (he's not immortal, you know). It should be in your possession.
Stay in touch. You can move to Florida, Arizona or Tahiti but stay in touch with your executor and the loved ones you don't despise. If widowed, give serious consideration to not getting remarried, especially to someone who has a lot less money than you do. It is asking for trouble.
If you move out of state, consult an attorney in your new state to see if you need to revise your existing will to mesh with local laws.
It's up to you to help your loved ones make a clean exit. Here are some essential steps:
Offer your love and support. Old people need love too, you know, and not just because there may be something in it for you. Most people don't like to think of dying so it's helpful if you can push them get their affairs in order, as the old saying goes.
Find a good estate lawyer. Volunteer to go along to the first appointment. By finding and vetting a reputable, experienced local attorney who handles wills, probate, etc., you can help motivate your friend or relative to take the necessary steps.
Do a little research. There is something called "probate." It is the legal process of closing out the deceased's worldly affairs and is managed by the courts. If there is no will, the court will simply divide things up however it sees fit and however local laws dictate. This may not be the way Uncle Al would have wanted it, which is why there should be a will.
If there is a will or, worse luck, several wills, the probate court will decide which one is valid and will follow its dictates.
It's easy enough to read up on probate. Laws vary from state to state but the process is pretty similar everywhere.
Remember what's what. The "estate" is all of the deceased's assets -- property, cash, stocks, bonds, cars, etc. The executor's task is to pay off outstanding debts from the estate's assets -- not from the executor's personal accounts. Don't let any bill collector tell you that you are responsible for the payments on Uncle Al's boat (unless you co-signed the note). If the estate's funds are depleted, you are not responsible for making up any deficit. Feel free to tell Bank of America it's just too damned bad. They lose, for once.
Likewise, if there is money or other assets left over after outstanding obligations are taken care of, it must be distributed under the terms of the will.
Don't be shy. If your mother's second husband splits with her car and money the day after the funeral, call the police. Such actions are called "unlawful conversion" -- theft, in plain English.
What sparked this article was an email from a consumer who wanted us and the local news media to tell "her story," which basically was that her widowed mother's second husband took off with her car, money, etc.
This, sadly, is not really news since it happens all the time. Rather than seeking publicity in hopes of educating future victims, see the "Don't be shy" paragraph above. Action talks, talk just moves the air around.
The world at large doesn't much care what happens to any of us individually. That's where loved ones, executors, friends and family come in. As with all things consumer, the time to protect yourself is before the transaction, not after.
A well-planned exit will be a happy ending, not just another rotten news story.