Oct. 5—Lots of folks around me have been dying lately.
Unfortunately, a few of those folks didn't plan for the day of their inevitable demise. They didn't have an estate plan, which is creating untold hardship for the people they left behind.
You, me and everyone we know are going to die. And if you don't get your house in order ahead of time, you'll create needless suffering for the people you love.
Please don't let procrastination or your fear of death stop you from making an estate plan. That is both selfish and unkind.
You need four key legal documents to take care of those who care for you. A lawyer will make sure it's all done correctly, but if your budget is tight, Quicken Willmaker Pro is a good DIY option.
1. A will A will is the most obvious document people think of when doing estate planning, and it is the cornerstone. A will tells the world how you want your possessions distributed when you die.
The best wills are simple, short and clear. Only worry about the big stuff. You do not need to itemize everything you own or even list specific items in your will. You want a will that will last through the years without needing constant revision. It can be as simple as "I give all my wealth and material possessions to my partner, Jane Doe."
You'll also need to carefully select an executor who carries out the instructions in your will. Being an executor is quite a bit of work, so make sure you leave them something in gratitude.
For those with significant assets to protect, or who expect to die within 10 years, creating a living trust in addition to a will allows your estate to skip probate and provides extra legal protections.
2. Power of attorney for health care
"Power of attorney" is a strange legal phrase. It means that you are granting someone the power to act on your behalf, to be your "lawyer" who represents you. But the person you give power of attorney to is typically not a lawyer but a relative, friend or spouse.
Power of attorney for health care grants someone the authority to make all your health care decisions in the event you can't. If you are injured, ill or mentally incapacitated, your "attorney" has the tremendous responsibility to make medical decisions for you.
3. Power of attorney for finances If you become incapacitated for an extended length of time, someone also needs to pay all your bills and make financial decisions.
The friend or family member who is your "attorney" for finances will have the legal right to access all your bank accounts and investments, so be very careful to whom you grant this authority.
All these responsibilities are tremendous, so give them to the person, or people, you trust the most. Family politics can take a backseat.
4. Living will or advance directive
The most emotionally challenging decision is often what to include in a living will. A living will expresses your wishes for medical treatment — or the withdrawal of medical treatment in the event that you are terminally ill and will die without life support. To pull the plug or not to pull the plug: That is the question. Either way, don't leave it unanswered. Forcing this choice on someone else is cruel. It is yours and yours alone to make.
Also remember, all estate planning documents are useless if you hide them, so share them with your loved ones. And make sure they are all notarized! If you are married and don't have an estate plan, your spouse is typically your default heir and is granted all powers of attorney.
When a person dies, there will always be practical things to take care of; the point of estate planning is to make the practical concerns as painless as possible during a time of heartbreak for the people you love.
Even when your soul moves to the great beyond, the ghosts of your financial life will linger. Your financial afterlife can be heaven or a spot of hell for those you love. What will your legacy be?
Doug Lynam is a partner at LongView Asset Management in Santa Fe and a former Benedictine monk. He specializes in environmentally and socially responsible investments and is the author of From Monk to Money Manager: A Former Monk's Financial Guide to Becoming A Little Bit Wealthy — And Why That's Okay. Contact him at email@example.com