Senior Lifestyles

Leave the legacy you want with end-of-life checklist

A lifetime of hard work may have rewarded you with a nice home and hefty bank accounts, but it may be time to consider what happens to all those assets once you’re gone.

Maybe you want everything to go to the kids. Perhaps a charity or a cause you champion should get a portion. And what happens if, before you die, your mental capacity diminishes and you can no longer make decisions for yourself?

Just thinking about your final wishes – or mentioning them to a close friend over coffee – isn’t enough.

“I believe too many people don’t do the proper planning to make sure that any wealth they’ve accumulated over the years ends up where they want it to,” said Jaime Cowper, president of Unity Financial Advisors. “Of course, that’s not going to cause any problems for the deceased because they’ll be gone. Those left behind, though, could end up feuding over property, paying more taxes than necessary or just becoming stressed as they try to put together the puzzle pieces of your estate.”

Estate management checklist

But you don’t have to leave your heirs guessing about your intentions. Cowper suggested following an estate-management checklist to make sure everything is in order. If you’re lacking any item on the list, she said, a financial professional can help steer you in the right direction.

• A will. This is perhaps the best-known document for letting your final wishes be known, yet it’s not as widely used as you might assume. Just 36 percent of American adults have a will, according to a Rocket Lawyer estate-planning survey by Harris Poll. If you don’t have one, it’s time to remedy that.

“It’s especially important to have a will if you have minor children because you can use the will to name a guardian for them,” Cowper said.

• Health-care documents. Like it or not, as you near the end of your life, you could reach a point where you’re no longer capable of making medical decisions for yourself. The right documents can spell out your wishes for health care and you can also name someone to make the decisions for you, if it comes to that. Documents you should consider include a living will, a power of attorney agreement and a durable power of attorney agreement for health care.

• Financial documents. Similar to the health situation, you can also outline your financial wishes and appoint someone to make financial decisions for you if you become unable to make decisions for yourself, Cowper said. Documents to consider include joint ownership, durable power of attorney and living trusts.

• Beneficiary forms. In some cases, when you name a beneficiary for bank accounts and retirement plans, they automatically become “payable on death” to your beneficiaries. In other cases, you must fill out a form to make the accounts payable on death. Why is payable on death such an important distinction? The beneficiaries can get their money without the potential delays caused by probate.

Finally, make sure that your heirs know where to find all of your important documents.

“When you’ve done all this planning, you don’t want to leave your heirs searching through closets, attics and dresser drawers in search of your important papers,” Cowper said. “You won’t be there to guide them, so someone should know exactly where to look.”

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