For Cicily O’bryant, it was the Death of her husband. For Eugene Parker, it was having to handle the burials of his mother and his grandmother. For Kevin Smith, it was a fatal accident that struck down a young colleague that reinforced the importance of planning. In each case, a firsthand look at how cruel fate can be to the unprepared convinced each to make things easier for his or her own loved ones by developing a comprehensive estate plan.
“It’s a touchy subject,” says Parker, 42, a Fort Wayne, Indiana, attorney who devotes most of his professional efforts to handling the business affairs of athletes such as Deion Sanders and Emmitt Smith. “A lot of people don’t prepare their affairs as well as they should. They’re thinking in terms of their own death, but the real question is what their family will do. The more you do now, the less stress your survivors will have to face.”
Indeed, nobody lives forever. And no matter how much we want to deny it, we’ll all put in a final appearance one day. At that point, your survivors–the people who loved you-will have to make some critical decisions. Should you be buried or cremated? Should your vital organs be left to science? Should you have a quiet family memorial service or a funeral ceremony open to the community? In each case, tough decisions have to be made quickly, and in a way that won’t cause hard feelings among the living.
Financial matters must be addressed as well. All the assets you have at your death, from your bank balance to your antique quilts, have to be parceled out to friends and family-hopefully according to your wishes. Titles to your stocks, real estate and cars have to be passed on. And, as you no doubt can imagine, the process can be incredibly unsettling to those you leave behind and unfair to those least able to fend for themselves, so it’s best to do the groundwork while you’re still breathing.
In other words, you should put together a complete estate plan to reduce the tensions that inevitably will appear after your death. Put your plan in writing and name a trusted friend or relative to carry it out.
What should go into your estate plan? Here’s a checklist:
A WILL. If you don’t draw up a will, you run the risk that the government will decide just how your worldly assets are distributed–in other words, who gets what. “When you draw up a will, you’re in control,” says Parker.
Having the government decide is not always bad. In some states, half of all your assets go to your children if you die without a will. But minors may become wards of the state, and your surviving spouse may have to account to a court for every penny spent on the children’s behalf.
“I kept putting off making a will because I found it very difficult to face reality,” says Kevin Smith, M.D., 38, a surgeon in Houston who’s married and has