By Sam A. Moak
ORGANIZE YOUR ESTATE PLANNING DOCUMENTS
The information in this column is not intended as legal advice but to provide a general understanding of the law. Any readers with a legal problem, including those whose questions are addressed here, should consult an attorney for advice on their particular circumstance.
I am commonly asked, “how long will the probate process take?” My patent response is, “that depends a great deal on how organized your loved one was.” If, like so many, you are prone to disorder in the keeping of important documents, assuming that you keep them at all, you may be well past due for a makeover of your estate plan and your end-of-life instructions. It is not just a matter of maintaining tidiness for its own sake; a lot of money and time could be saved by making your estate plan organized and accessible and then keeping it that way.
Yes, it is easier said than done, but consider a quick fact if you doubt the importance of this undertaking: According to some sources that study such things, state treasurers now hold over $32 billion (not million) dollars in unclaimed bank accounts and other such assets. Could your heirs find all of your assets?
Then there is the prevalent problem of some large insurance companies failing to pay out unclaimed life insurance policies to beneficiaries, claiming that under the insurance contracts they are obligated to do so only when the beneficiaries come forward. When the beneficiaries are not even aware of the existence of the policies, obviously they do not come forward, and years of premiums may have been paid for nothing.
The take-away lesson is that it is just as important to keep estate planning documents well organized and in a safe place, known to and accessible by your heirs, as it is to properly execute the documents in the first place. Any virtue can become a vice if taken to extremes, so this does not mean holding on to every scrap of paper that could conceivably be of interest to those you leave behind. Nonetheless, to possibly save your heirs a significant amount of money, time, and stress, at least the essential documents should be kept together, such as in a safe-deposit box, and/or at home in a fireproof safe that someone can access when the time comes. Instructions on how to dispose of your estate will not mean much if you have not left instructions on how to find the controlling documents.
Essential Documents to Organize:
So what are these essential documents that you should have well organized and accessible? Individual circumstances vary, but the first document for most people is an original Will. Dying without a Will means leaving the determination up to the state as to how your assets will be distributed, and if there is some writing, but not an original document, probate proceedings could become needlessly contentious and drawn out.
In addition to a Will (and any trust documents), what follows is a nonexhaustive, but reasonably comprehensive, list of other important documents, the existence and location of which should be known to your heirs:
Marriage license—A surviving spouse is likely to need it to prove that he or she was married to the deceased before being able to claim anything based on the marriage;
Durable health-care power of attorney (for health-care decisions if you are incapacitated), a Directive to Physicians, any do-not-resuscitate order, and an authorization to release health-care information;
Durable financial power of attorney (for financial decisions if you are incapacitated);
Documentation of ownership of property, including housing, land, cemetery plots, vehicles, stocks, bonds, etc.;
Proof of loans made and debts owed;
List of bank and brokerage accounts, with account numbers, and any safe-deposit boxes with the location of corresponding keys;
Tax returns for the most recent three years;
Life insurance policies and 401(k), pension, annuity, and IRA documents; and,
List of user names and passwords for Internet accounts.
With a little bit of foresight and planning, you can greatly reduce the administrative burden on your family and heirs after you pass, not to mention saving them time from having to discover and understand your affairs.
If you have a question regarding Elder Law, Estate Planning, Living Trusts or Probate in the Huntsville area, please contact us at 936-295-6394 or visit our website. Call today and we will connect you with an experienced Elder Law and Probate Attorney. We can schedule you a face to face appointment to discuss your circumstances. If you have questions or are considering any aspect of your estate plan, probate, your health care directives, etc. we can help! Call us now at 936-295-6394 . We look forward to hearing from you and assisting you with any and all elder law and estate planning needs
Sam A. Moak is an attorney with the Huntsville law firm of Moak & Moak, P.C. He is licensed to practice in all fields of law by the Supreme Court of Texas, is a Member of the State Bar College, and is a member of the Real Estate, Probate and Trust Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.