When I was young, we used to play games like Hide and Seek, Spud and Spaniola. But my favorite was Huckle Buckle Beanstalk. The adult-in-charge would require us kids to cover their eyes and would then hide an object somewhere - - in the house if we were playing inside, or on the property if we were outside. We would then set upon trying to find it. The only clues given by the adult were “warmer” or “colder,” depending on whether we were getting closer or farther away. Whoever found the hidden object would cry out “Huckle Buckle Beanstalk!” and win a point. Whoever had the most points at the end of the game would get a prize. I taught the game to my children. They taught the next generation to use computers, but that’s another story.
What does Huckle Buckle Beanstalk have to do with elder law?
For years, I have been advocating six words that are key to estate and asset protection planning: THINK AHEAD. PLAN AHEAD. ACT NOW! I am happy to say it seems to be catching on. People are acting more responsibly in thinking about putting into place a viable plan to deal with what happens to their estate when they die, and they are becoming better at not waiting until it is too late to do something. It’s all well and good to have proper documents in place and to have your investments in order. There is, however, something many families fail to consider.
All too often, a client comes to me after having suffered the loss of a spouse or a parent and laments: “I know he (she) had a will, but I can’t find it.” Or, “I found some bank/brokerage statements, but I know there are others. I have searched but can’t find them.” Or, “We had an awful time locating the cemetery deed.” Or “One of my siblings got into the house, and items of jewelry I know were in Mom’s dresser are missing.” And so on. . .
The death of a loved one is inevitably accompanied by a period of disorganization, even when the passing was either expected or not unexpected. Huckle Buckle Beanstalk - - looking for missing documents or objects - - doesn’t work when the person who would otherwise be the leader is no longer with us. A proper estate plan should also include a document that will be a road map to identify important people to contact and the location of important documents.
About six months before he died, my father, the most organized person I ever knew, sent us a one-page document entitled “Asset Information.” On it, he had listed the name, address and telephone number of his broker; the titles of his and my mother’s accounts; the names of the banks in which they had accounts, including account numbers; the location of bank and brokerage statements, checkbooks and emergency cash; the location of the title to the car; Social Security direct deposits and health insurance; among other things. He also told us there was no safe deposit box and that no one owed him any money. He did not have to tell us about doctors and medications because he knew we had that information.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same it true with every estate we represent. Within the last year alone, we have successfully probated three lost wills and have dealt with several families who literally turned the house upside down until they found a will. Tax returns sometimes help to identify bank accounts and securities, but when the decedent’s income does not require the filing of a tax return, financial information is more difficult to find. On several occasions, clients found life insurance policies after administration of the estate was completed. In one case, a missing bank account surfaced almost eighteen months after the decedent’s death, resulting in an assessment of interest by the State of New Jersey.
My suggestion is that everyone do what my father did. Put yourself in the shoes of your family and make a list of information you would want to have if you had responsibility for administering an estate. You can simply make a list, and update it periodically. With computers, it’s not hard to make such changes. If you are not computer literate, have someone do it for you, or just write out the list. There are no legal requirements for creating this practical document. Crosscuts and interlineations, which might invalidate a will, are welcome in helping locate documents. As one might expect, there are kits available for purchase, some more elaborate or comprehensive than others. A Google™ search for “family document organizer” or “estate document organizer,” will lead to a variety of products at a range of prices. I especially like “What My Family Needs to Know,” published by the United States Department of State. It’s a bit long but very comprehensive, and it is free. You can find it by clicking here.
Finally, for married couples, following the suggestions I make in this article is a good start but really not enough. It is not uncommon for a surviving spouse, usually the wife, to tell me she is completely in the dark because “He did everything for me, and I don’t know what to do or where to begin!” Family finances is not a one-person matter. It should be a partnership. There is nothing wrong with one spouse having responsibility for paying the bills and managing the income or assets, but the other should not be left in the dark.
Don’t force your family to attempt playing Huckle Buckle Beanstalk without you. THINK AHEAD. PLAN AHEAD. ACT NOW!