If your spouse died, would YOU know the answer to these angonizing questions? - Do I have enough money to live on until the estate can be settled? - Where is the real copy of the will? - Do we have adequate life insurance and where are the policies?
- What real estate properties do we own?- Must the estate be probated?
- What debts are there against the estate?
- What legal and tax advisers can I now turn to for advice?
- Are there any income taxes currently due?
- How do I go about settling the estate?
Jackie, whose 50-year-old husband died unexpectedly of complications following surgery, did not know the answers.
Burying her husband was just the beginning of a series of life-shattering events that continue to have far-reaching consequences for her and her children.
Though overwhelmed in her bereavement, for months Jackie was forced to sort through mountains of paper searching for vital documents. Since her husband had mentioned a $l00,000 life insurance policy, she wrote every insurance company whose name appeared in her husband's files in search of that policy.
"One by one the letters came back all the same," Jackie says. "We are sorry to inform you that while your husband did have life insurance with us at one time, the policy has lapsed.
"The painful questions to which there are no answers are endless," says Jackie of her attorney husband's lack of planning. "Did he really love us? If he loved us, why would he leave us so vulnerable, so unprotected? As an attorney, had he not seen what can happen to families when the father, the breadwinner, dies unprepared?
"Did he give even a passing thought to who would sort through 25 years of files and records he had accumulated in his law practice, or go through the work of finding titles, searching for lost papers, or paying bills with no life insurance?"
Jackie's situation was tremedously complicated because her husband's assets were tied up in a family business in which most agreements were verbal. The ensuing disagreements regarding Jackie's legal position in business affairs left her with few assets and ripped apart an extended family that had "lived together in a circle of family love for 25 years." Says Jackie: "An otherwise great family has been scarred deeply, in all probability, permanently."
Jackie's story is not unusual, says John W. Homer, ULU, an expert in financial and estate planning. "Most people are not in a position to adequately assess the problems and challenges that must be faced at death."
Homer urges couples to work together on estate planning with a professional. Husbands need to include their wives in planning and wives need to take an active interest because 75 percent of the time wives are the survivors who must settle the estate. If there is no plan, wives are also the ones who bear the anguish and burden of sorting through the financial maze. As in Jackie's case, wives may be forced to enter the work force and supplement their income with a meager wage.
Estate planning provides instructions for a survivor and usually gives that person an adviser. "One of the biggest traumas surrounding a death is that during married life a person has someone to reason with or to work out a crisis," observes Homer. "But when a spouse dies, the survivor often has no trusted consultant."
Think about estate planning this way, Homer advises: "If you're going out for the evening, you'd probably leave a note with the babysitter regarding how you can be reached and what to do in an emergency. If you're going for a week, your instructions to the people you leave behind would be much more extensive. Estate planning is simply an elaborate set of instructions for that trip you're going to take and never return."
Homer advises bringing together in one place all important information. "I've prepared a binder for my wife which lists all our assets and liabilities," he says. "It has information on all our advisers, copies of important documents such as wills and trusts, bank and credit account numbers, copies of investment accounts, appraisals, annual reports on securities, insurance policies, savings accounts, etc."
Homer keeps his binder updated and goes over it with his wife every year. His binder also contains a set of letters to his wife and children which he periodically rewrites. "I don't throw the previous letters away, so the binder includes several years of `last thought' letters and feelings toward them, feelings about what I hold important in my life, how I feel about their mother, and briefly what I've tried to accomplish for them through my financial planning."