Where there’s a will

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How to reduce the stress and financial burden on your heirs


  • New York Surrogate's Court. Photo: Steve Guttman, via flickr

Here’s some serious relationship advice: Don’t die. If you do, dealing with your departure won’t be a walk in the park for your heirs. In fact, it will be a marathon that starts with the dreaded probate, the process by which your executor gains the authority to run your estate. Depending on the complexity of your will, probate can take from one month to forever. Ditto for moving all your monetary assets into an estate account so your heirs can pay bills like that credit card with the balance you really meant to settle or the monthly maintenance and mortgage which continue until your apartment or other property is sold. So before death becomes your only choice, hire a trusted lawyer to walk you through the twist and turns of leaving. Other tips:

Go pre-paid. Your spirit may have flown, but your remains remain and must be remaindered. To make sure they do it your way, pre-purchase a plan. You can chose a funeral plus burial or cremation or skip the formalities and go straight to direct burial or cremation, the latter followed by ashes scattered in an appropriate manner (for New Yorkers, the ocean off Fire Island is common). The newest, greenest way is to place your ashes in a container with tree or plant seeds to grow — in permitted areas — a living reminder that you indeed were here (check it out at https://urnabios.com/). Rana Huber, Director of Communications for the New York State Funeral Directors Association, explains that buying-while-living helps relieve stress and reduce the financial burden for those you leave behind because while the price of the cemetery or crematory services may rise, the price of the funeral stays frozen.

Remember, where there’s a will there’s a way ... to keep it simple. One possibility is to give stuff away before you die which not only simplifies things but also allows you to see people enjoying your gifts while you can still see. Plus, if one of your gift-ees is an organized charity, you get a tax deduction. As for the will itself, choose your executor/executrix carefully. Wills are generally family affairs, so the usual choice is spouse, children and then out into the family tree. But funny things may happen when relatives and money or treasured items are involved, so you may decide to name a judicious and impartial friend instead.

Stay single ... in your financial and legal life: One bank, one stock broker. You may hear that if you have tons of money (lucky you!), you can’t have just one bank because the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) only insures accounts up to $250,000. But in many cases, for those of you not zillionaire rich, your banker may propose divvying up the stash into separate-but-legal accounts, each one insured for that quarter million. Now for stocks and bonds: The paperwork involved in transferring assets from one brokerage to another can reduce your heirs to tears not of grief but of fury. At you. So, choose one and done. And yes, you should be a friend with benefits ... well, beneficiaries. Be sure every bank or stock account in your name is labeled with the name of a person to whom the asset goes when you do. Keep the list on file with your bank and other financial institutions, and keep it current. If Beneficiary A dies or just plain annoys you, pick another person and update the records.

Finally, because you are an individual and special person to whom general rules may not apply, check everything not once but twice with your lawyer. Then sit back, and re-read that first sentence: Don’t die. At least not today.

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