Imagining our death can be more terrifying than the shower scene in “Psycho” – the unknown of what comes next, the pain dying may bring. What we don’t think about often enough is what happens after we’re gone.
A life gone leaves a lot behind, and someone needs to take care of it all: organizing your assets, paying off debts and beneficiaries, transferring property. Facing this part of death can be just as scary as facing the emotional fears. But it doesn’t have to be.
The greatest antidote for fear is knowledge. Planning for what happens to you and your assets when you die gives you the peace of mind to face death bravely. Here are the top things to think about when planning for the end.
Who gets what
Whether it’s money or property – land, that golf club owned by President Eisenhower or your collection of Hummel figurines – one surefire way to rest in peace is knowing that all of your assets were handled the way you wished. There are several ways to dole out what’s due to whom.
- Wills. While there are several ways to protect your assets from being placed in the hands of someone you don’t want touching your stuff, one of the original ways to do this is through a will. Wills work on assets that you own by yourself and just in your name (no beneficiaries or joint tenancies). Without a will, the state will step in and divvy up your assets per that state’s default plan. Usually, this means splitting everything 50/50 between your spouse and your kids. If your spouse is still alive, this may negatively impact their ability to support themselves after you’re gone. And if you really want your favorite nephew to have that pen set he’s long admired, a will is one of the better ways to make sure that happens.
- Trusts. A trust is like a bowl of candy, in which the candy represents the assets placed in the trust. Instructions come with the trust (the candy bowl) that state who can eat the candy and when. There are a variety of trusts that serve a variety of purposes. For each trust you have, you must assign a trustee who is responsible for managing the candy bowl and delivering the candy based on the instructions. Our attorneys can assist with creating the right trust and appointing the right trustee.
- Joint tenancy. The most common example of joint tenancy is a home you lived in with your spouse. Upon your death, your spouse inherits the property. If your spouse decides to sell the house, they must present your death certificate proving that they are the sole surviving tenant. If the property becomes owned by your surviving spouse and any of your children, the inheritance continues moving from surviving joint tenant to surviving joint tenant.
- Beneficiary designations. Insurance policies; financial accounts, like IRAs; and retirement accounts all have pay-on-death designations called beneficiaries. When you die, each beneficiary must submit a claim to the institution holding the insurance policy or account to get payment of their share of that asset. It’s important to be aware of who the beneficiary is on each asset, in case you make any changes to your estate plan or the beneficiary dies before you. Without a living beneficiary, ownership of the asset may be settled through probate court.
Make your wishes known
This is probably not surprising news: Most people don’t like talking about death. Less than 50 percent of people have shared their end-of-life wishes with their spouse, and half do not know what their parents’ wishes are in a life-or-death medical situation. If you don’t have these uncomfortable conversations, you’re at risk of your final moments on earth being at the whim of family members who may have opinions different than your own.
To make sure you’re cared for the way you want in the case of an illness or accident that leaves you incapacitated, you need to assign a power of attorney. This person can be a family member, a friend or an attorney – someone you can trust to make decisions in your best interest. But in order for them to do that, you need to communicate what you want. Without a power of attorney or a will, the issues of your medical care and distribution of your assets will likely end up in probate, where the court will assign an executor of your estate. Wouldn’t you feel better if you chose how things go, instead of a judge?
We also encourage you to discuss your funeral plans, including paying for the funeral, with your loved ones. We know you’ve thought about your funeral – we all have. Now’s the time to talk about it so that you are given the fond farewell you desire. If you want to be cremated and shot into space, it’s a little disappointing to think you’ll spend eternity underground instead of floating through the cosmos simply because you didn’t speak up.
Paying for long-term care
If dementia or a physical impairment requires you to have constant or near-constant care, you could be looking at spending literally hundreds of thousands of dollars by the time you die. The average cost of long-term care at a nursing home in Northern Illinois can run more than $8,000 a month. You may be healthy right now, but the future is always uncertain. Having a strategy to pay for long-term care in your estate plan can prevent you from going broke and leaving your family with a huge bill.
We can’t know for certain what happens to us after we leave this mortal coil, but we can know what happens to our assets. That kind of knowledge helps make the fact that we will one day die less frightening. Our attorneys can help put plans in place that will allow you (as much as possible) to afford your end-of-life plans and ensure the right people get the right things. When you’re gone, we’re there to gather and distribute your assets just as you planned.
Need help getting started? Reach out to our team anytime to design a plan that makes facing the end a little less scary.