Does your estate plan (or lack thereof) come to mind every time you board a plane or embark on a long drive? When we travel, many of us are reminded of our own mortality and the remote but real possibility that we might not return due to death or illness.
Before any trip, most of us create a to-do list of things we have put off and want to take care of before we leave. Here is a checklist of estate planning items to address before your next trip. Attending to these items will help you travel with peace of mind, knowing that if you do not return, you have made things much easier for those you love.
- Have an attorney prepare your estate plan. If you have been procrastinating about your estate planning, use your next trip as your deadline to finally get this done. If you are unsure about some decisions, your attorney can help you. If money is tight, start with what you can afford (a simple will or trust, durable power of attorney, and healthcare documents) and upgrade your documents when you can or your circumstances change. Be sure to allow adequate time to discuss your estate planning objectives with your attorney and to review and execute the documents drafted by your attorney in advance of your trip. You may need to allow additional time to discuss questions about or proposed changes to the documents with your attorney.
- Review and update your existing estate plan. Revisions should be made any time there are changes in your family (i.e., a birth, death, marriage, divorce, or remarriage), your finances, or the tax laws, or if a trustee or executor can no longer serve. Before you travel is a perfect time to do this. Again, be sure to allow enough time to have the changes made.
- Review titles and beneficiary designations. If you have a living trust and did not finish changing titles or beneficiary designations, now is the time to do so. Some assets should not go into your trust, so check with your attorney and make sure those assets are as they should be. If a beneficiary has died or if you are divorced, promptly make any necessary updates. If your beneficiary is incapacitated or is a minor, setting up a trust for this person and naming the trust as beneficiary will prevent the court from taking control of the assets.
- Review your plan for minor children. If you have not named a guardian who is able and willing to serve and something happens to you, the court will decide who will raise your children without your input. If you have named a guardian, consider if this person is still the best choice. The person you name when your children are young may not be the best choice as they get older. This person may also change his or her mind, move away, become ill, or die, so name at least one successor in case your first choice cannot serve. Select someone responsible to manage the inheritance.
- Review and update incapacity documents. Everyone in your family over the age of eighteen needs to have these documents: (1) a healthcare power of attorney, which gives another person legal authority to make healthcare decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself; (2) a living will, which describes what type of life support treatment you want and for how long; and (3) a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) authorization, which gives written consent for healthcare providers to discuss your healthcare information with others, including family members.
- Review and update your insurance. Before you travel is an excellent time to do this. Check the amount of your life insurance coverage and see if it still meets your family’s needs. Consider getting long-term care insurance to help pay for the costs of long-term care (and preserve your assets for your family) in the event you or your spouse need it due to illness or injury.
- Organize your accounts and documents. This is an excellent task to do before you travel, and it will make things much easier for your trustee or executor. It used to be that we could just point to a file cabinet and say “everything is in there.” But now so much is done online that there may not even be a paper trail. Make a list of all of your accounts, where they are located, and the usernames and passwords, then review and update it before each trip. Print a hard copy in case your computer is stolen or crashes and let someone you trust know where to find it. Clean up your computer desktop and put your financial and other important files where someone can easily find them. Make a backup copy of these files in case your computer is stolen or crashes, and let someone know where it is. Be sure to include on your master list any passwords that might be needed to access your computer and files.
- Talk to your children about your plan. You do not have to show them bank and financial statements, but you can talk in general terms about what you are planning and why, especially when any changes are made. The more they understand your plan, the more likely they are to accept it—and that will help to avoid discord after you are gone. You can also talk to them about your values and the opportunities that money can provide.
Estate planning is an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Using each trip as a reminder to review your plan and financial affairs is a great way to stay organized and current. Completing this checklist on a regular basis will give you peace of mind and be a gift for you and your loved ones.
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