Comedian Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” has become a holiday classic for all regardless of whether or they celebrate the Festival of Lights. A familiar refrain (in all four editions of the song) is the affirmation that “instead of one day of presents” the children who celebrate Chanukah “have eight crazy nights!” (also the name of a Sandler holiday movie).
Surely, part of the crazy that Sandler references is the interaction with family, the giving and receiving of gifts, and, in addition, personal reflections on our own lives. In many ways, the holiday season is the perfect time to think about one’s own estate and personal planning, especially as it coincides with the entry of 2020.
And so, my gift to you are eight estate and personal planning topics for you to think about and discuss with your family and friends, one for each night of Chanukah, crazy or not.
- Sign a Last Will and Testament: If you are over the age of 18, regardless of the size of your assets, it would behoove you to sign a Last Will and Testament. That document dictates who gets your money and possessions and who is in charge of your estate, including your electronic and social media accounts, when you die. If you do not like your immediate family, this is especially important because, without a Last Will, your local probate court will determine who gets the inheritance, subject to state law. Additionally, if you have children, the Last Will and Testament determines who becomes guardian of the minors when you die. If you do not appoint someone under a Last Will, the Court will choose the person for you, and, in addition, the person who is in charge of managing the children’s inheritance. Lastly, just writing a Last Will is not enough. You should sign it with proper witnesses and certifications as prescribed by your state’s laws. An unsigned Last Will is worthless.
- Sign a Power of Attorney: A Last Will and Testament is the controlling document when you die. But what happens if you become incapacitated during your life as a result of illness or accident? Without a Power of Attorney your loved ones will not be able to access your individual financial accounts nor will they be able to estate plan, sell property, purchase property, or handle a host of other matters.
- Sign a Health Care Proxy: A Health Care Proxy appoints an agent to make decisions on your behalf for medical purposes in the event you cannot make them for yourself. (Everyone should execute a Health Care Proxy while they are healthy so that in the event of illness or catastrophe, their agent has proper authority.) Further, you must discuss your health care wishes with your agent so that the agent understands your level of comfort in the event surgeries or more aggressive treatments are advised.
- Purchase life insurance: Life insurance is an invaluable product that hopefully does not get realized for a very long time, if ever. Simply, if you have dependents, purchase a life insurance policy so that in the event of your death the survivors have a benefit that can be used to replace the monies that you brought into the family. This is very important if you have children for whom private schooling, camp, or college are planned. Additionally, if the family house is mortgaged, and you wish for the survivors to remain, then the life insurance proceeds will help to defray the costs. Both spouses require life insurance, as the death of either will surely have an impact on the family finances, regardless of whether a spouse works in or outside of the home.
- Plan, or at least talk about, the disposition of your final remains: Admittedly this is a macabre topic for the holiday table, however, it is important to note family and religious traditions for the disposition of your final remains. Questions include whether you wish to be buried, cremated, or — in the state of Washington — composted. Perhaps you wish to donate your remains to science. Whatever the case may be, you should discuss it with your loved ones so that your final wishes are carried out.
- Take an inventory of your assets: If you do not have an inventory of your assets, make one. Generally, a Last Will and Testament does not list individual assets. It can often be an arduous task for an executor to discern a decedent’s assets. If you make a list and keep it with your Last Will or give it to your attorney, there is at least a record of what your assets were on the date of the signing of the estate planning documents. Moreover it provides you with a knowledge and understanding of what you presently have and perhaps to what you may aspire.
- Schedule doctor appointments: This one is not necessarily a legal discussion, however, it is very important. Part of adulting, whether you are in your twenties or eighties, is taking care of your business, both financial and personal. Get your yearly physical examinations so that any issues can be dealt with promptly. Illness has a way of creeping into life plans at inconvenient times. It is often an impetus for estate planning. My blessing for you is that you use the confirmed absence of illness to finalize your estate planning.
- Talk to your family about your wishes and about their desires: Use holiday family gatherings to speak to your relatives and close friends about your wishes, should they be nominated as fiduciaries under your documents. Similarly, if you have loved ones who should be planning, encourage them to do so, ask if they have their affairs in order, and encourage them to think about these important issues. Unfortunately, when matters are put off, emergencies are created. At that point, a lot of time and resources can be spent trying to put affairs in order that could have been handled with much ease years prior.
Although the discussion of personal and estate planning may not be so funukkah, when done in good health and peaceful times, it can be a straightforward and pleasant process.
Cori A. Robinson is a solo practitioner having founded Cori A. Robinson PLLC, a New York and New Jersey law firm, in 2017. For more than a decade Cori has focused her law practice on trusts and estates and elder law including estate and Medicaid planning, probate and administration, estate litigation, and guardianships. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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