By Darleen Hinrichs
Parents spend their lives helping and worrying about their children, but in their senior years, their adult children begin helping and worrying about them. At this stage, there is a wonderful gift that parents can give to their children that will make this time much easier for them, and will help ensure that their own wishes are followed.
What is the gift that your children don’t know they want but will be very grateful for? It is the gift of having well-organized financial accounts, signed advance directives, and a legal will.
Let’s face it: no one wants to think about the possibility of not being able to handle their finances, much less their own death. However, putting off these essential steps does not change the future — it only makes a difficult time even more so for the children and maybe for the parent, too.
Many well-intentioned people put off these crucial decisions until it is too late. The result is their loved ones are left searching for these documents at a very stressful time, guessing what their parent’s wishes are — and standing by helplessly if the documents cannot be found.
Of course, you can choose whomever you wish to handle your affairs; it can be a sister, a nephew or just a friend. Most people choose a child. The key is that it should be someone you trust. There are ways that you can make it much easier for them, one of which is having the necessary legal documents.
Advance Directives: In the event you are ill and unable to speak for yourself or handle your own finances, having these legal documents is vital. They settle the question “What would Mom or Dad want?” You may assume that your loved ones will be able to speak for you, but unless you have a properly signed living will or health care surrogate form, your health care wishes may not be followed. Without a signed Durable Power of Attorney (a person who is authorized only during your lifetime to handle your financial affairs if you are unable), your bills may go unpaid and other financial matters would be left in limbo.
After signing these documents, it is equally important to keep them in a safe place, but one that is easily accessible to your children. They must be able to show these signed documents, so it is wise to give them a copy or tell them where they can be quickly and easily found.
Personal Finances: It is best if senior adults simplify their finances and limit the number of bank accounts they have, have payments directly deposited, and bills automatically debited. Reducing the number of accounts to keep up with, the number of statements you receive, and the number of checks you have to write helps ensure that you will be able to maintain your own finances longer.
Who will pay your bills if you are ill for an extended time? Often, it is an adult child. Simply adding a child’s name to a checking account is not enough. It is important that you let your children know where they can find your accounts, checkbook and bill-paying schedule. If you pay bills online, your children should know this and have your usernames and passwords so they can manage payments. Having this information will make the job much easier for your children and will protect your credit in the midst of a crisis.
A Legal Will: Over half of all Americans do not have a will. Many people falsely believe that it isn’t necessary unless you are wealthy. The fact is that everyone needs a will. This not only ensures that your assets are passed to the people or charitable organizations you wish, but it prevents some unnecessary stress and heartache for your family.
The laws for what happens when someone dies without a will vary from state to state, but a similar pattern is commonly followed. Generally, the court decides where your assets go — and it may not be where you think. The court-appointed executor may be someone that you would not have chosen to handle your affairs, but they are suddenly thrust into that very role. The process can be long and expensive. Who pays? Your estate — which means there is less left for your heirs.
Creating a will is not difficult and the benefits of having one far outweigh any reason for not doing it. Once done, keep it in a safe place, but not in a safe deposit box, as these are sealed upon the death of the owner and your loved ones would have to go to court just to get access to your will.
It is also helpful for you to keep an inventory of your assets and debts, and to let your children know where it is, without necessarily showing them the list itself. Informing them of the location of car titles, insurance policies, deeds and other important paperwork is key.
Preparing for a worst-case scenario can help your loved ones go through any traumatic time much more easily. It may seem unpleasant now, but once completed, it can give both generations a sense of comfort knowing that you have made a thoughtful plan that they can follow. It is possibly the best gift you can give.
This article is intended as general advice and should not be viewed as legal or financial advice. For your individual situation, please consult a financial advisor or estate planning attorney.