Keeping your financial house in order is important if you care about the financial and emotional well-being of your heirs.
All necessary investment, insurance and ownership papers should be kept together, so they can be found easily in the event of your death. You also should have the family personal and medical histories readily available. Going beyond even your will, you should clearly spell out your personal wishes for funeral arrangements and the division of specific personal items, so there's little chance family members will wind up in disagreement.
Each week, I receive letters from families that have found old stock certificates or other investment papers many years after a loved one's death. While many times they are worthless, in some cases they are valuable. In either case, they shouldn't simply have been stuffed away.
"I find frequently that people buy stocks or other investments and completely lose track of them, when they could have sold them and made some money," said Arnold Cernik, a senior vice president with Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. "It also can cause a problem in the event of a death, when the heirs aren't sure what is held or its value."
I'm often contacted by surviving spouses with little clue about the investment holdings they've been left, their value and the need to keep up on them. I've spoken with widows whose holdings in troubled companies, such as International Harvester and Continental Illinois, plummeted in value while the certificates gathered dust in desk drawers.
In addition, many families are left with little sense of heritage or medical history when senior family members pass away. These days, many Americans know very little about even their grandparents' backgrounds.
"Letting your heirs know your specific wishes is a personal issue, one that saves them from having to guess as what you wanted in terms of, say, the funeral service and flowers," said attorney David Magee, author of a workbook and organizer entitled "Everything Your Heirs Need to Know: Your Assets, Family History and Final Wishes" (Dearborn Financial Publishing: 1991). addition, many wills are written in generalities, splitting the estate into several parts without expressing any specific wishes about the division of family heirlooms or other rather basic items."
According to Magee, those closest to you should know if you'd want to be kept alive by extraordinary measures should there be no serious hope of recovery; where you were born; where your parents lived and are buried; and the different types of work experience you've had.
In the event of your death, heirs should be aware of your wishes regarding donation of your body for medical education; whether you wish an open or closed casket, or cremation; whether you prefer a public, private or religious funeral service; and where you'd like memorial donations sent.
Family members should be able to easily locate your birth, marriage, divorce or annulment records; insurance policies for home and contents, vehicles, health, disability, accident and travel; savings and checking accounts; and safety deposit boxes. Stocks, bonds, mutual and money-market funds, commodities and real estate deeds also should be kept in an easy-to-find location.
You can put together such information without either a workbook such as Magee's or a computer program. A notebook and manila envelopes will probably do just fine. But, however you do it, it's important. Seventy percent of Americans die without making a will, despite the fact that a well-executed will gives control over eventual distribution of property and keeps the state from making those decisions for you.
If you care about your legacy and your family's future, get everything together now.