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An Important Gift to Your Family

February 20, 2014

Preparing for end-of-life decisions as part of a Legacy Plan is not a subject many of us wish to think about, much less address and plan for.  However, setting forth one’s quality of life goals and personal wishes is one of the best gifts you can give your family. This is probably more relevant today as our world has grown smaller; our children frequently live great distances from their parents and siblings, and as a result, possibly have grown apart some.  In our experience in working with families, we have found that families do not often have these sensitive conversations or share important documents or information.

Recently, I read a book entitled The Sandbox Wars, which described stories of families torn apart by a lack of preparation as well as those that were thoughtful, intentional and ultimately successful in creating their legacy plan.  As we all know, family disagreements and unsettled contentions can occur for selfish interests, like money or possessions, but more often, they occur due to misunderstandings and emotional reasons because of sentimental value, keepsakes, memories and expectations.

Although most of the families we work with have had excellent legal advice and documents prepared that define the disposition of their estate, some have not clearly looked at the practical implications of their plans. Further, many have not stated inheritance goals for their children with the lens of both the tangible and intangible wealth of their family.

By explaining the “why” behind the estate plan and expressing the intangible values, stories and experiences you hope will carry on, controversies and conflicts have the chance to be resolved quickly, allowing the harmony, unity and connectedness of generations to be preserved and maybe even enhanced.

Here are a few steps for you to consider as you plan your legacy more purposefully.  After all, isn’t it important to add meaning, purpose and clarity to your inheritance planning?

Make sure your legal documents are in order:

Legal documents are often complex and hard to understand, let alone easy to explain to a family member.  We believe that it is important to visually integrate your estate plan with your financial situation, inheritance goals and any charitable bequests that you intend.  In this way, you can see the practical implications of the plan and any potential for misunderstandings or conflict.  It is also much easier to explain the plan to a family member.

One document that is almost always incomplete or missing is the Personal Property Memorandum .  Allocating personal property among surviving family members after the death of a loved one is frequently the most difficult and stressful part of administering an estate for both the person in charge of the estate and the family itself.  Conflicts often arise among the family over personal items like works of art, antiques, collections, and even seemingly worthless items such as pictures, letters, books, or scrapbooks.  This is because more than one family member often has strong sentimental attachments. You can help avoid such arguments and the resulting ill feelings by simply designating specific gifts using one or more written lists.  It is also recommended to explain the lists to your family in advance.

Other important aspects of the plan are the coordination of property ownership and beneficiary designations for insurance and retirement accounts.

Develop a more personal health-care letter or memorandum:

Most comprehensive estate plans include both a health-care power of attorney and general power of attorney for financial decisions.  These are essential documents but are often not customized for your particular goals.  We recommend that you consider writing a personal health-care letter that describes your quality of life goals, explains the selection of your health-care agent if other than your spouse, and possibly provides the memorial and burial instructions you want.  It is important that all your decision makers like family members, doctors, and the hospital be given copies of your Advanced Directives and that they are easily accessible to a paramedic.

We suggest that you consider enrolling in DocuBank.  DocuBank provides an emergency card that gives instant online access to your vital documents like your living will and health-care power of attorney anywhere in the world.  If this is of interest, please let us know, and we will help with the enrollment.

A relatively new process in Colorado that is intended to be used by a chronically and seriously ill person who either resides in a nursing home or has constant contact through home care with a health-care provider is called the Medical Orders for Scope of Treatment (MOST).  This is a standard form that can be easily and quickly understood by family, patients, health-care providers and emergency personnel.  This form summarizes and consolidates patient preferences for key life-sustaining treatment.  The form needs to be completed and signed by the patient and health-care provider and is retained in your medical records and orders.

Consider a legacy video and ethical will:

Where a will or trust typically emphasizes material things, a legacy video or ethical will allows you to pass on values, hopes, briefs, history, life stories and the intangible things you are grateful for and that matter most.  Additionally, these tools have the potential for clarifying communication and helping avoid family conflict.  In contrast to your legal documents, a legacy video or ethical will speaks from the heart and tells a story that can add richness and a meaningful dimension to your planning.  These tools provide the opportunity to describe significant life experiences and create an enduring link to future generations by sharing and preserving priceless history.

Prepare a legacy life planning organizer:

It is always a good time to review and consolidate your important documents and arrange a system or file where they can be easily located.  In addition, to your legal documents the following items should also be considered:

  • Names and phone numbers of key advisors and designated trustees.
  • A list of family members’ current addresses and phone numbers.
  • A list of your insurance, including the name of the company, policy numbers, the name and phone number of the agent, and premium/benefit information.  It is also a good idea to designate a third-party to receive notification if your policy is in danger of lapsing or terminating for non-payment.
  • A current listing of assets and liabilities, property ownership, and beneficiary designations of retirement accounts and insurance.
  • Social security and pension information.
  • Personalized health-care instructions (this is in addition to the health care power of attorney).
  • Letters to your family about your hopes and wishes and possibly a legacy video.
  • User names, passwords and access to computerized records, safety deposit boxes, or other types of storage for safekeeping (this can be placed in your safety deposit box).
  • Personal Property Memorandum, particularly for sentimental valuables, keepsakes.

Have the conversations:

We each have a fiduciary plan; however, it may or may not do what we intend if we become incapacitated, disabled or die.  Having conversations with family either individually or as part of a family meeting with fiduciary advisors will not only add clarity to your wishes and your financial situation but also will potentially minimize irrational decisions and misunderstandings at a time when emotions are high. It is important when planning these meetings to keep your expectations in check. They won’t always be well-understood, accepted, or received, but it is the right thing to do.

Some of you may have read the recent story in the Wall Street Journal titled “A Mother’s Last Gift:  A Legacy Video” about Michelle Wallace who gave birth to her fourth child and then discovered she had an advanced case of endometrial cancer.  Her biggest fear was that she would not be remembered by her son.  So, at the encouragement of her adult daughter, she recorded a short video about her life, her idea of happiness, and how she hoped to be remembered.  Michelle died at age 43 when Toby was 2.

Honoring our family in these ways is a worthy hope for keeping the next generation connected and memories alive.

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