The untimely demise of Michael Jackson reminds us that even though we all know our time will come, we have no idea when it will be. There may be only a slim chance you could die suddenly at the young age Jackson did (50), but it's still a possibility. So every adult has a couple of things to do so their wishes will be followed. Even if you don't really care about what happens after you die, do them anyway, if for no other reason than to relieve the emotional distress that will be felt by your loved ones that you leave behind.
Here's what to do right now, regardless of your situation, so you keep calling the shots even after you're gone.
- Advanced Health Care Directive
Some call this a living will, others call it a medical power of attorney. Regardless of what it's called, you need one. Why? Because you always run the risk of getting into a car accident, or some other accident, that will leave you unable to care for yourself. At that point, you can't tell anyone what you want to do, so someone else has to do it for you. If you don't have this document, your wishes may or may not be what actually occurs. In addition, the lack of clear wishes puts a horrible burden on the person that actually has to make a life and death decision. (For more, check out Letter Of Instruction - Don't Leave Life Without It.)
This document will designate a person to make medical decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. It specifies your wishes to accept or refuse resuscitation, life support, organ donation, and other types of care. Basically, its lets your physician, family and friends know your health care preferences and who will make decisions for you when you can't make them for yourself. In as fast as you can say, "Look out for that bus!", your life could hang in the balance. So get this done now.
A last will and testament is simply a set of instructions that tells the world what your wishes were if you passed away. It will divvy up your property, declare an executor to close out your estate, and possibly contribute to a charity. But more important than how your possessions are dealt with is the declaration of guardianship if you have children. Without this document, your intentions for the care of your kids won't be known. Again, think car accident and get this done now. (What would happen if you were suddenly unable to manage your financial affairs? Preparation is the best protection The Importance Of Estate And Contingency Planning.)
If you die without a will, it's called intestate or intestacy. The state will have control over your situation, and your loved ones can be sent into turmoil with in-fighting, lawyers and court fees. What's more, it's possible that without a will, any separate property you have may not go to your spouse, but rather be split between your spouse and other relatives.
Another thing you should check is the beneficiaries that you have listed on documents like your retirement plan and insurance policies, so that they transfer automatically. So, check to be sure the people listed are the ones you want and are still alive. Many people are shocked to find that they just inherited their ex-spouses retirement account. If you don't want to give your ex-spouse your retirement, then change the beneficiary because your will won't overrule it.
Doing the Paperwork
Although each state will be different, the forms that you can use to create these documents should be available from the state, probably the State Attorney General's office, or the State Bar Association, typically online free of charge. A quick web search should provide the forms for your state. In some cases, you may need a notary, but most people shouldn't have any difficulty understanding the basics and filling them out. Of course, if you have questions or a complicated situation, seek professional counsel.
Once complete, these documents should be kept where other papers that are likely to be accessed at the same time would be, such as a safety deposit box or home safe. Regardless, make sure to provide the location and access to those involved so they will know where to go and what to do if something happens.
Beyond these two things lurk a bevy of complicated legal maneuvers that can save your estate taxes and provide more complicated options. They may or may not be worthy of time, energy, and money. But saving taxes for your heirs can wait, these things can't. Your life, your kids' future, or both, may depend on it. (A store-bought will might not cut it - learn what you need to have in yours, see Six Estate Planning Must-Haves and Estate Planning Basics.)