Beyond Living Wills - A Special Gift For Readers
FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
IN THIS ISSUE:
1. Untimely Death – An Unpopular Subject
2. Most Survivors Are Unprepared
3. Getting Your Affairs In Order
4. Leaving a Written Record
6. Mid-Term Election Handicap
I’m sure that all of you remember the Terri Schiavo story that dominated the news back in the Spring of 2005. Terri was just 26 years old when she collapsed in her home in 1990. She suffered from heart failure, which caused severe brain damage from lack of oxygen. Doctors eventually declared her to be in a “persistent vegetative state” with no hope of recovery.
The world found out about Terri when the news media picked up on the legal battle involving Terri’s husband and her parents. Her husband wanted to remove Terri’s feeding tube and allow her to die, and her parents objected. The case not only generated strong feelings on both sides of the issue, but also focused attention on the need for “living wills.”
You see, all of the legal action was required because Terri did not leave a living will, in which she would have provided a written record of her wishes upon becoming incapacitated. Thus, her family members had to guess about what they thought she would have wanted.
Though the publicity surrounding the Terri Shiavo story has subsided, the need for a living will is still very important. Such a document can relieve some of the stress and strain on family members should an incapacitating illness strike. If you don’t currently have a living will, no matter your age, I would highly suggest that you seek out a qualified attorney and have one drawn up.
Just as important, you shouldn’t stop there. Living wills are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to planning for survivors. There are many financial, legal and family issues that should be addressed prior to death or becoming incapacitated to help take some of the pressure off of a surviving spouse or other loved ones.
No one likes to talk about death, and many people put off planning for this contingency for that reason. Most young people think that death is a long way away, so they do nothing in the way of planning. Yet Terri Schiavo was only 26 when she became incapacitated, and people of all ages are killed every day in accidents. The survivors of premature deaths are usually the hardest hit, because the death comes as much more of a surprise. That’s why it’s very important to plan for the possibility of an untimely death, even if you are young and healthy.
This week, I am going to address several important financial planning issues everyone should consider, just in case the unthinkable happens. I will also tell you how you can receive a free booklet entitled, “All They’ll Need To Know” that will help you prepare for a time when you will no longer be around to make your wishes known.
Also note that in this E-Letter, I will refer to the “financial partner” as the person who primarily handles the family finances, and the “non-financial partner” as the one who is usually not aware of all of the financial details. I do not use the term “spouse” because there are many single readers who may read “spouse” and think that this advice only applies to married couples, and that is not the case. I also fully realize that, in many families, both spouses equally share financial duties.
In the financial services business, we have more than our fair share of widows and widowers who come to us without a clue as to what kinds of investments their late spouse owned, how much was invested, or how and where the assets are held. They are not alone. A recent article I read stated that over 90% of survivors are not fully prepared for an untimely death.
This isn’t surprising given how many families handle their financial affairs. In many cases, one spouse is in charge of the checkbook, investments and most importantly, filing of important papers. The other spouse is often minimally involved, signing on the dotted line when necessary and generally knowing where important records are, but not familiar with the details.
Unfortunately, the non-financial partner is sometimes that way by choice. I have talked to many couples where the husband or wife will say that the finances are the other partner’s responsibility, and they don’t care to know anything about them. In other cases, the financial partner intentionally keeps the other partner in the dark. This is especially prevalent with single individuals, who are often reluctant to share their financial information with someone else, even a family member.
Add to this lack of knowledge the shock and grief that accompanies an untimely death, and you have a recipe for a financial disaster. And then it gets worse: Widows and widowers are often preyed upon by unscrupulous scam artists who offer help in time of need, but end up taking advantage of bereaved survivors whose judgment may be clouded by sorrow.
Yet, most of these problems are almost totally preventable. Just by taking a little time to document the financial details that pertain to your family can save hours of searching, not to mention the emotional strain coming from being thrust into the financial role without any preparation.
Gather And Organize Your Information
My first bit of advice may sound too simplistic, but it is to gather your financial information into one place: a file cabinet, bank safe deposit box or other suitable storage medium. It is amazing to me how many different places financial information is kept in many families. Some have part of their information at their office, other parts at home, some in a file cabinet, some in a dresser drawer, some in all of the above, etc., etc. There are times when survivors find important documents only by accident, and sometimes many years after death.
There’s no wonder why many survivors have a hard time figuring out what their financial situation is, because they are having a hard time finding all of it, much less sorting it out. An article I recently read (http://www.unclaimedassets.com) estimated that as much as 25% of life insurance benefits are not paid to beneficiaries because they didn’t know a policy existed. How sad!
When deciding where to store your important financial information, be careful of bank safe deposit boxes. In some cases, banks will freeze access to safe deposit boxes upon notification of the death of the holder. This can be true even if the box is jointly owned with right of survivorship. Therefore, access to any important paperwork kept in the safe deposit box could be significantly delayed. If it is necessary to keep original documents in a safe deposit box, you should make copies of them to access if death occurs when banks are closed or access to the box is restricted.
Getting Your Affairs In Order
Once you have gathered all of your financial materials together in one place, it’s time to review them and get them in order. By getting them in order, I don’t mean alphabetizing them or putting them in nice neat file folders. What I mean is that you should review your overall financial situation and make sure that it reflects your current and long-term plans. Specifically, I would recommend that you do the following:
1. Update your will. If you don’t have a will, get one ASAP. It is also very important to update your will periodically. Estate laws change periodically and differ from state to state. I recommend that you consult a competent attorney who specializes in estate planning for this, even if your estate is not expected to be large enough to trigger an estate tax.
I do not recommend using do-it-yourself resources to do your will because they can never tailor a document to fit all of the intricacies of most families, and this is especially true when it comes to blended families. Plus, since estate planning law changes frequently, websites and books will not always notify you when your document needs to be revised, but a good attorney will.
2. Make sure all of your assets are titled correctly. The way assets are titled has an effect on how they transfer upon your death. For example, a bank account held by two people as “joint tenants” transfers differently than if it were jointly owned with “right of survivorship.” However, consult with your attorney regarding titling issues as there are some risks involved when naming other owners to your accounts.
In addition, it is important to keep your information current and updated. For example, if you have recently married, you may want to add your spouse to the account, unless it is intended for it to be separate property in community property states. Or, you may have remarried and want to remove an ex-spouse from the title of an asset.
If you have established trusts as part of an estate plan, it will be important to make sure that any assets that are part of these trusts are also titled correctly. Trusts are a key element of estate plans, and you will need a good attorney to help you with this.
3. Make sure contractual beneficiary designations are current. Life insurance, annuities, retirement plans and IRAs can all be transferred contractually by naming a beneficiary. This means that the proceeds are transferred outside of the will and need not go through probate. However, this makes it even more important to keep these beneficiary designations updated.
If you have recently married, or if one or both parents are deceased, you will need to replace parents or other family members as beneficiaries of your insurance policies. Just as important, if you have divorced, you may want to remove your ex-spouse as beneficiary, unless your divorce decree requires otherwise. It is not uncommon for insurance proceeds to be paid to an ex-spouse just because a person never got around to changing the policy beneficiary.
Under most retirement plans, the current spouse is required to be the beneficiary of death benefits, but this is not always the case for IRAs. Therefore, you will also want to make sure your IRA beneficiary is current. It is also important to name contingent beneficiaries should the primary beneficiary predecease you.
4. Make sure you have a “financial power of attorney.” A financial power of attorney simply empowers a trusted individual to manage your financial affairs should you become incapacitated. It takes effect at such time that you can no longer handle your own business affairs, and ceases upon your recovery or death.
In addition to the financial power of attorney, it is important to note any automatic payments you may have set up to be withdrawn from your checking account. If deposits are no longer made into the account, these automatic withdrawals could bounce, possibly affecting utilities, insurance coverage, debt payments, etc.
If you pay your bills via the Internet, then it is also important to make that known, as well as the user ID and password for your financial power of attorney designee or survivor to use to access your banking information and pay bills as they become due.
5. Make your wishes known. This piece of advice is obviously not limited to financial issues, but it is vitally important to make your wishes known when transferring financial holdings or any other asset with significant value upon death. While I have noted above how many financial instruments can have joint ownership with right of survivorship, or carry the ability to name a beneficiary, there are other items of value that may not be able to be transferred as easily, such as family heirlooms, antiques, valuable collections, personal items, etc.
In those cases, it is imperative that you state your wishes clearly in either a will or living trust. I think this is especially true today when there are so many “blended families” made up of children united by remarriage of the parents. What may be a family heirloom to one child could be a valuable commodity at the local pawnshop to another. It happens.
Another very important item to consider in this process is the disposition of financial assets. Whether those financial assets are stocks, bonds, investment or security accounts, or real estate, it is important for the financial partner to leave instructions as to how they should be handled upon death.
We often get calls from widows who are now trying to sort through the family investments and determine what they should do with them. Sometimes these callers are in a near-panic trying to make decisions about assets they know little or nothing about. Had the financial partner left clear written instructions, this confusion could be avoided. Thus, it is critically important for the financial partner to consider the level of sophistication of the non-financial partner, and leave written instructions for the disposition of assets accordingly.
Along this line, I am sad to report that survivors are often targeted by brokers and insurance salesmen and even bankers who offer financial help, but are really out to liquidate all assets and put them into products that will generate commissions or fees for them. From my experience, it is rare that every single investment should be liquidated upon the death of one partner, yet we often hear from survivors who have been given this advice.
Therefore, an important part of getting your affairs in order should include the knowledge that your survivors will likely be targeted by the financial services industry and others, so you should leave very specific instructions as to how each asset should be handled.
6. Note all important contacts. There are some who successfully go through all of the prior steps in getting their affairs in order, only to fail to make a list of important contacts for their surviving partner. This list should contain the names, addresses and phone numbers of all important contacts. From a financial perspective, these should include your bankers, brokers, insurance agent, attorney, accountant, and financial and investment advisors. You should also include user names and passwords for websites where you have made any financial or investment transactions or have accounts.
This list is important because while the surviving spouse may be able to find all of the insurance policies and account statements, he or she may be totally lost as to how to proceed from there. Having a complete list of contact information will be very comforting during this time of great emotional stress for the survivors.
Write It All Down
Once you have all of your affairs in order and organized where they can be found, it is important that you document all of this in a concise manner. This documentation will serve as a guidepost for your survivors to let them know what assets you have, where they are located and how they should be treated. It is not enough to just tell the other partner about these issues and hope they remember. As the old saying goes, “a short pencil is better than a long memory.”
There are various methods of documenting everything your survivors will need to know. The simplest is a letter to the surviving partner detailing where all of the important papers are and how they should be handled. However, it is sometimes hard to think of everything to put into the letter, and a letter that does cover everything may be so long that it’s overwhelming.
Others keep a summary file folder along with their other important papers that contains copies of statements for assets, special instructions, important contacts, etc. The summary file approach is usually easier to update than rewriting an entire letter to address changes.
I don’t recommend either of these approaches. I have always recommended a more detailed approach to keeping track of your assets and leaving detailed instructions for your loved ones when you are gone. There are various products on the market for doing so. However . . .
I recently ran across one of the most useful and thoughtful financial tools I have ever seen to help organize all of the important items necessary to pass on to loved ones in case of an untimely death. It’s a booklet entitled ALL THEY’LL NEED TO KNOW from Emerson Publications. I was so impressed with this planning tool that I negotiated the right to reprint them so I could offer them to you, the faithful readers of this E-Letter.
All They’ll Need To Know provides checklists that cover virtually every piece of information you would need to pass on to surviving loved ones. This format is superior to a letter, in that it allows you to simply enter information into a template. You can even provide information on who you want to receive your special personal possessions, and even details about the funeral service you would like to have. (Believe it or not, these small things are sometimes some of the most stressful decisions that survivors must make.)
I have managed to negotiate the rights to reprint All They’ll Need Need To Know and make it available to my clients and readers free of charge. I am delighted to be able to share this with you, as this is something we all need and can make use of.
You can obtain your FREE copy of All They’ll Need To Know by either giving us a call at 800-348-3601 or by completing one of our online request forms. There is absolutely no charge or obligation involved. Making this booklet available to you is a way for me to show my appreciation to all of those who regularly read this E-Letter.
Once you receive your booklet in the mail, I encourage you to complete it soon, and then let your spouse or other loved one know where it will be kept. Since the booklet will contain some of your most sensitive information, you should select a keeping place that is safe and secure. However, as I noted above, a safe deposit box may not be the best place to keep this information, since access may be frozen upon your death.
It is also important that you review the information in your All They’ll Need To Know booklet at least annually to make sure all information is current. Outdated records can be just as confusing as no records at all. You may also want to make all of your entries in pencil so they can be modified as necessary over the years.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, I wanted to keep my comments very general and focused mostly on basic financial matters. There are many other estate planning and family considerations to be made in addition to the above items, including deciding guardianship of minor children, setting up and maintaining trusts, establishing a succession plan for sole proprietors, funeral expenses, etc. However, all of these are far beyond the scope of this short E-Letter, and most require the services of a qualified attorney and CPA.
Suffice it to say that there are many financial, legal, and family issues to be considered upon a person’s death. These issues can either be dealt with prior to death through careful planning with qualified professionals, or left to bereaved survivors who will have to face these issues during a period of great stress and turmoil.
If you are reading this E-Letter, it is likely that you are the financial partner in your family. If so, I suggest you carefully consider the suggestions I have given and take steps to inform and protect your loved ones upon your death. I also encourage you to order the free All They’ll Need To Know booklet and complete it with the help of your non-financial partner. This will help him or her see the importance of becoming involved in the family finances.
While the subject matter of this week’s E-Letter may be less than cheerful, it is nonetheless important, especially in terms of long-term financial and estate planning. We all know that none of us are guaranteed to see tomorrow, so pre-death planning is an important consideration for anyone who wants to make it easier for their surviving loved ones.
That’s all on that subject for now. I hope this helps.
Mid-Term Elections With One Week To Go
Wow – how things shift! In August, the polls indicated that the Republicans would hold majorities in both houses of Congress. Then in September, things shifted big-time toward the Democrats. For a few weeks, it looked like the Democrats would sweep both the House and the Senate. Now, if we can believe what we hear, the races are tightening again.
In my October 10 E-Letter, I outlined how the polls had shifted in a major way toward the Democrats, and that there was a real chance that the Dems could retake both the House and the Senate in the midterm elections just one week from now. Now, three weeks later, things seem to be shifting again, back just a little bit in favor of the Republicans.
As this is written, and based on all the polls, it does appear that the House will go to the Democrats. If that is the case, we will have the first female Speaker in history in the person of Nancy Pelosi, one of the most liberal members of Congress ever.
The Senate is in the balance, with only one or two seats that could tip it either way. But most polls, as this is written, suggest the Senate will stay in GOP control narrowly. Remember, even at 50-50, Vice-President Cheney can cast the deciding vote.
But is the race as lopsidedly Democrat as we were led to believe a month ago, or is it narrowing as we are led to believe now? It depends, of course, on what poll you believe. It depends moreover on which side gets more people to turn out and vote.
The mainstream media tends to favor the Democrats – what else is new? But last week, US NEWS reporter Michael Barone – who is one of the fairest mainstream reporters in my opinion – handicapped the election as follows:
So it remains to be seen what happens. I have conservative friends that hope the Democrats win both Houses of Congress. Honestly, I can’t blame them. The Republicans have made so many mistakes, as has President Bush. I have written often about this.
But as we go to the polls next Tuesday, do we think the Democrats really have a plan to make things better? Domestic policy, international policy, taxes, the economy, health care, jobs, etc.? Do we just pull out of Iraq and let Iran take it over? Do they have a plan? Not that I’ve heard.
These are all questions for the referendum on November 7. We’ll see how it goes. I tend to think the midterm election will not be as bad for Republicans as the mainstream media would have us believe. To the contrary, Spencer Wright – the other political junkie at Halbert Wealth Management – believes that the Democrats will sweep on November 7.
The fact that the polls are tightening now is nothing new. This happens as the elections get closer. Bush was way ahead of Gore in 2000 but lost narrowly in the popular vote. He was way ahead of Kerry in 2004 but it ended in a close race. The hunt tightens in the end.
So we’ll see what happens. Above all, be sure to vote!
Very best regards,
Gary D. Halbert
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Forecasts & Trends E-Letter is published by ProFutures, Inc. Gary D. Halbert is the president and CEO of ProFutures, Inc. and is the editor of this publication. Information contained herein is taken from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed as to its accuracy. Opinions and recommendations herein generally reflect the judgement of Gary D. Halbert (or another named author) and may change at any time without written notice. Market opinions contained herein are intended as general observations and are not intended as specific investment advice. Readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. This electronic newsletter does not constitute an offer of sale of any securities. Gary D. Halbert, ProFutures, Inc., and its affiliated companies, its officers, directors and/or employees may or may not have investments in markets or programs mentioned herein. Past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Reprinting for family or friends is allowed with proper credit. However, republishing (written or electronically) in its entirety or through the use of extensive quotes is prohibited without prior written consent.