Now Is the Time to Prepare for Forever

Physician's Money DigestMarch15 2003
Volume 10
Issue 5

Some major life events are thoroughly preparedfor months in advance—forinstance, weddings. After the happy couplefinally sets a date, family members andfriends contribute hours of their time and attentionto help the bride-to-be and future groomorganize the big day. Every detail isaccounted for, from the color of theflowers to the flavor of the coffeeoffered to guests during dessert. Nostone is left unturned.

And after months of planning,preparing, and stressing, all of the hardwork pays off. The bride and groomshare one of the best days of their lives,and guests enjoy a lovely celebrationthat unfolds without a hitch (hopefully).At the end of the day, the sun sets,the guests leave, and the newlywedsride away in their rented limousine togreet their future. The end.


Like most married couples, these 2people will never again spend theamount of time they spent preparingfor a 1-day, 5-hour party on anotherlife event again. With the exception ofchildren, vacations, graduation parties,and college tuition, most futurelife events will be organized, but notwith the tenacity and attention to detail theydevoted to their wedding day. Especially when itcomes to the least popular life event: death.

Despite all our differences, every humanbeing shares death in common. Besides sharingthis inevitable final life event, we also share theinconsistent behavior associated with preparingfor its arrival. In most cases, we do nothing toprepare for it even though we know with 100%certainty it will happen. And although our reasonsmay be good (eg, nobody enjoys thinkingabout their death, funerals are notevents to look forward to, and theactual date is unknown), there is noexcuse not to be prepared.

The fact is, more than 70% ofAmericans die intestate (ie, without leavinga formal written will). In addition, alarge number of Americans who manageto create a will fail to leave behind specificanswers, instructions,and vital informationfor remainingloved ones. Oftentimes,survivors are then leftsearching hopelessly forthe pertinent informationthis is unavailable.Carole O'Brien is oneof these survivors.

Six months afterher husband's death,Carole O'Brien ofPhoenix, Ariz, facedthe reality that shecould not afford tokeep the family home. Although real estate salesin her area were flat, she was lucky to find abuyer. Unfortunately, the deal fell throughbecause her late husband filed the documentpertaining to the property's water rights somewhereshe has yet to find. And although theproperty can be passed from generation to generation,without that document, Carole O'Briencannot sell her home.


Retired bookkeeper Eileen Gladstone singlehandedlymanaged the family finances with asound, long-term plan designed to comfortablysupport her and her husband for the rest of theirlives. Unfortunately, Eileen took the plan and hermoney management strategies to the grave. Thisleft her retired husband Harry in a bind. Besidesmourning the loss of his wife, Harry was forcedto confront a number of unanswerable questions:What investments should hehold onto and for how long?What stocks should be sold andwhen? What debts should bepaid off and what debts shouldbe left to amortize?

Lacking his wife's keen moneymanagement skills, Harrymade a series of irreversible,bad decisions. First, he spentway too much money on hiswife's funeral. Then, followingthe advice of an equally financiallyinept friend, Harry liquidatedthe family nest egg andused most of the money to payoff all his debts, including the mortgage.Debtless, but penniless, Harry now lives like apauper. His only means of support is the $733social security check he receives every month.


Not a nice ending to a sad story, indeed. Butas with most of life's lessons, we canlearn something from the mistakesof others. Although Harry andEileen's situations are unfortunate,they both could have been easilyavoided. Death may beinevitable, but the mess is preventable.And understanding thisfact will make one of life's hardestrealities a little easier to handle.


So what can you do now to preventmore heartache after yourdeath? Fortunately, there are anumber of things you can do nowthat will ensure that your heirs willget the most out of your estate andnot be left in the dark. The followingis a list of some of these importantto-do's:

  • Set up an estate plan that includesa will, trust, and guardianshippapers (if you have minor children).
  • Establish a budget and a planfor your final wishes and arrangements.Consider purchasing a prepaidplan during your lifetime.
  • Create a thorough personalinformation list. Include your socialsecurity number, debts, bills, creditcards, lines of credit, insurance policies,the location of these importantdocuments, the contents of yoursafety-deposit box, and all relevantpasswords. Remember to regularlyupdate this list.
  • List IRAs and all of your otherretirement plans, and include allbenefits, terms, and penalties forearly withdrawal.
  • Maintain a current list of trustedadvisors. Include what they doand who to call first.
  • If you own a business, provideinstructions and information thatwill help keep the business runningprofitably in your absence. Includecustomer and key contact lists,day-to-day routines, anticipatedtrouble spots, and legal, financial,and tax obligations. If your businessis a partnership, include theterms of the partnership.

Make a list of insurance policiesto be kept in force, providingthe due dates, benefits, and premiums.If a policy lapses for nonpaymentof premiums, reinstatement ofthat policy or procuring new coveragemay not be possible.

Although probably not the mostenjoyable to-do list you will encounterin your lifetime, ironically itmay be one of the most important.If you've ever had to deal with aloved one's passing, you know wellthe heartache that can accompanydeath. Besides loss, our departurecan create a practical void. Fortunately,if we take the time to fill inthe missing pieces before we'regone, our family can get used to ourabsence without having to worryabout dealing with what seem to bethe irrelevant details.

Martin Kuritz is a retired estate planner, who, for more than 30 years, has helped clients

effectively communicate their economic and personal wishes to their

heirs. His 1993 best-selling book, The Beneficiary Book: A Family Information Organizer,

has sold more than 1 million copies. He is also the coauthor of 2

other books, My Busine$$ Book and Take Good Care of My Baby.

For information about these books, call 800-222-9125 or visit

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