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Put your estate plan on paper before it's too late

  • By Michelle Singletary,
  • The Washington Post Writers Group
  • – 03/20/2014
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Through the years, I've shared a lot of personal stories. I do so because I hope to spare others from making financial mistakes.

I want to tell you about something I'm going through that I hope will lead you to take action — today.

My mother was in a house fire and is in critical condition in a burn center. She's on a ventilator. As we work with the health professionals, we are coming up against a lot of roadblocks that have created a lot of stress.

My mother was fiercely protective of her personal information. She wouldn't prepare a will, which specifies your wishes for your assets, or a living will or other directives that stipulate what kind of medical care you want or don't want if you're unable to speak for yourself. Specifically, a living will states whether you want life-prolonging procedures.

A health-care power of attorney will allow someone you name to make decisions about your medical care. This type of power of attorney is different than a power of attorney (or POA) for your financial affairs, which enables someone to manage your finances, such as paying your bills, if you are unable to do so yourself.

We are praying my mother will survive. But this isn't about my mother and my situation. It's about you.

I'm begging you to please put in place the paperwork and gather the personal and financial information that a designated family member, friend or professional will need to take care of your affairs should anything happen to you. Do some estate planning.

If you care about those who will handle things for you in case you become incapacitated, help them now. Do it if you have dependent children or someone depending on you financially. Do it for the people you will leave behind.

Only 35 percent of Americans have a will, according to a 2012 survey by FindLaw.com, a legal information Web site. If you die intestate, which is what dying without a valid will is called, your assets could be distributed according to the laws of your state or as the result of a costly court battle.

Stop saying everyone knows what you want. Everybody probably doesn't know. Or in their grief, they may not be able to make the decisions you would have preferred. If you don't leave written instructions, emotions or unresolved issues can get in the way.

Don't be so secretive or scared that someone is going to steal from you that it ends up costing more money to you or to the person ultimately given the task of handling your affairs.

Do it to help the medical and hospital personnel who may one day have to care for you. All their focus needs to be on you. They shouldn't be dragged into your family drama or a witness to it — which can stress them out — because you didn't take the time or couldn't figure out somebody to trust.

My husband and I preferred to hire a lawyer to handle our estate planning, but there are also affordable online services and forms to help you create the documents you need so you have something in place. On the Web site for AARP.org, search for "Legal Documents You Need Now." You can find free information on wills and livings wills, including a link to find an attorney in your area, at FindLaw.com. Under "Legal Topics," click the link for "Estate Planning."

Here are some of the essential documents that need to be assembled or prepared: bank statements, insurance policies (life and home), retirement and pension information, veterans records, your will, guardianship instructions and advance medical directives.

Prepare what's called a "letter of instruction." Think of it like CliffsNotes for your personal and financial information. And if you're going to keep the letter on your computer, be sure to print a copy or save it to a flash drive in case your computer can't be accessed. You don't need to share the letter. Just be sure to let someone know where it is.

Today, not tomorrow, start putting your affairs in order. Help eliminate or at least minimize the anxiety and frustration and even the possible fights — because you know your family — that will occur because you didn't do some estate planning.

Taking action now can bring peace during a time that can be anything but peaceful.

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© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group
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