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What Losing My Dad Taught Me: A Guide To Estate Planning

In the journey that is life, it’s all too common to overlook the invaluable aspects we’ve been granted. In my own experience, I must admit that I had chosen to evade the sobering realization that, inevitably, my parents would not always be a constant presence.

Having those discussions was a task I consistently tried to initiate, urging them to prepare for the future. Aspects such as making a will or trust, streamlining financial accounts, securing access to the safe and deposit boxes, clarifying account co-holders, and more were topics I really tried to cover. Regrettably, they, too, chose to avoid the weight of these matters. Then, in March of 2022, my dad’s passing brought an irrefutable reality into focus.

My dad, who had steadfastly avoided conversations about mortality or having a will, was confronted with the stark reality of cancer. In the weeks prior to his death, I would find myself by his side, having deep conversations that we had never had before. One day, I asked about his preferences for his final resting place. His response, delivered in his characteristic stubborn Italian manner, was, “Just cremate me and flush me down the toilet!” This was no time for humor! True to his wishes, we arranged for his cremation, but no, we didn’t flush his ashes. Today his remains rest within a beautiful urn in my mother’s apartment plus a smaller urn at my home that I look at every day.

In the wake of my father’s passing, my brothers and I came to realize, rather abruptly, our lack of preparedness for the challenges that lay ahead. Navigating the transition for my mother, addressing financial complexities, determining the fate of their, too large for just mom, home—these were just a few of the myriad tasks that demanded our attention. Every intricate detail, down to the smallest possessions like a cell phone, necessitated careful handling. Over the span of a year, we grappled with these details, and the experience proved to be a prolonged and agonizing journey. Had we possessed a comprehensive plan, our path could have been considerably smoother. To those who find themselves in a similar circumstance, I implore you to begin the process of Estate Planning now—allowing our experience to be your guide. To quote the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Estate Planning: A Necessity Defined

Estate planning constitutes the meticulous arrangement of your affairs, ensuring the well-being of your loved ones in the event of your death or incapacity. Key to this plan is the composition of a will, a pivotal element that directs the distribution of your assets. Likewise, meticulous documentation of your possessions, liabilities, and open accounts is crucial. Detailed listing of beneficiaries for your retirement and investment accounts expedites seamless transfer of funds.

Vital Documents: Navigating the Landscape

Foremost, the creation of a will is imperative, regardless of the extent of your assets. Its role in facilitating efficient and timely distribution of your holdings cannot be overstated.

In certain situations, a trust may be advisable, acting as a legal contract that designates an individual, the “trustee,” to oversee assets for the benefit of designated individuals. Particularly beneficial for dependents and elderly family members unable to manage their own affairs, trusts are often employed by individuals to ensure ongoing asset management for successive generations.

A “power of attorney” document is another essential consideration. Granting authority to a trusted individual, your “agent,” a power of attorney empowers them to act on your behalf should you be unable, be it in medical or financial matters.

A Comprehensive Checklist for Estate Planning

Beyond the mere creation of a will, estate planning encompasses a detailed audit of your assets, orchestrating their seamless transition to chosen recipients. With the guidance of this checklist, you can thoroughly address these important facets:

Catalog Your Possessions: A meticulous inventory of valuable assets, ranging from your home and electronics to jewelry and vehicles, is essential. Include items of sentimental value and those intended for charitable donation.

Document Non-Physical Assets: Document financial assets like bank accounts, retirement plans, life insurance, and policies in detail. Record account numbers, firms’ contact information, and relevant documents’ whereabouts.

Enumerate Debts: Compile an account of outstanding debts, from credit cards to mortgages, with corresponding account numbers, documents, and creditor information.

Copy and Distribute: Date, sign, and replicate your lists, providing a copy to your chosen estate administrator and safekeeping duplicates for yourself and your main beneficiary.

Verify Retirement Accounts: Review beneficiary designations on retirement accounts to ensure their alignment with your intentions, despite instructions in wills or trusts.

Update Insurance: Confirm beneficiaries on life insurance and annuities, taking into account recent changes in personal circumstances.

Facilitate Transfer on Death: Where possible, establish Transfer on Death (TOD) designations to avoid unnecessary probate procedures.

Appoint a Responsible Executor: Deliberate over the choice of an estate administrator, selecting an individual of sound judgment capable of navigating emotionally charged situations.

Draft Your Will: Draft a will to guide the distribution of your assets, while also considering guardianship for minors and arrangements for pets.

Regular Review: Regularly assess and update your will, considering changes in assets and life events.

Ensure Accessibility: Share copies of your will with your estate administrator, and maintain an original copy in a secure location.

Seek Professional Guidance: Consult professionals, such as estate attorneys or financial planners, for an encompassing investment and insurance plan.

Streamline Finances: Consider consolidating various retirement accounts for ease of management and to reduce expenses.

Confront Procrastination: Overcome the inertia of procrastination, for lack of preparation can lead to disputes, unnecessary expenses, and complex legal proceedings.

Initiating the process of estate planning is an imperative step in securing the future for yourself and your loved ones. The wisdom of Benjamin Franklin’s words rings true. …. your efforts now will yield invaluable peace of mind and safeguard the interests of those closest to you.


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About the Author

Jenn Heller is the Operations Manager for The Volen Group, Keller Williams Luxury International, a top real estate team in Ponte Vedra Beach. Jenn has over 18 years experience in Real Estate all in Ponte Vedra Beach, she is an Atlantic Beach resident via Long Island, NY since 1991, a book worm, and loves sports, dogs and the beach.

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