Each morning at Appel & Yost, a Lancaster attorneys’ office specializing in wills, trusts and elder law, a receptionist pulls out the obituary section and cross-references it with a list of client notecards.
It’s a grim job.
The notecards contain critical information about the locations of original wills, clients’ next of kin and their chosen executors. If there’s a match, the firm sends out a gentle letter telling survivors which attorney can help them find and make sense of paperwork in the days after a death.
As boring or intimidating as it may seem, keeping careful track of certain documents and talking them over with expected survivors before your death might make the survivors’ lives simpler.
“Always tell your kids or beneficiaries where the will is,” says estate attorney Nichole M. Baer. “If you don’t have the original will in Pennsylvania, they assume you’ve destroyed it.”
A will is just one of a several critical documents — some formal, some not — that can alleviate stress and ensure an individual’s wishes are actually followed as they intended. Wills can also help survivors account for all assets, rather than allowing some to be accidentally overlooked.
Whether a person just owns a family home or has millions of dollars across multiple investment accounts, it’s never too early to get organized.
“The biggest mistake is not having an estate plan,” says Jeff Goss, founding partner at Brubaker Connaughton Goss & Lucarelli. “Once you have begun to accumulate assets of your own, you need a will in place to distribute them according to your wishes … Secondly, once a plan is in place, it is important to keep it updated."
Information and contact lists
As bills are increasingly paid online and statements are issued electronically, it is becoming more important to keep a comprehensive list of important bills, investment accounts, property, insurers, and financial or estate planners. All of those items will help an executor sort through debts and determine assets.
Create a list at any time and stash it somewhere secure, but consider consolidating some accounts and making the search simpler if you know your health is declining.
Families left without a list should try to locate tax returns; they at least provide a good source of investments such as CDs, drip stocks or interest-bearing savings accounts, says Lee Pelko, lead financial advisor for Rogers & Associates, a retirement specialist in Lancaster.
“The most important thing about a will is that someone is going (to have) to be able to find it,” Pelko says. “If it’s in a fire-retardant box at home, fine. If it’s in a safe-deposit box at the bank, fine. As long as someone knows where it is.”
It’s also critical that it is the original and includes inked signatures from the testator and two witnesses. A mere copy will not hold up in court. A self-proving will that includes an affidavit attesting to signatures could be useful because it will speed up the probate process, Baer says, but the affidavit must be available, too.
In addition to assets, the will typically lists a guardian for a minor child. If not found quickly, a child could be placed by the Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency, and not necessarily with the candidate the parents wanted.
Many times, estate attorneys like Baer hold wills on behalf of their clients. Any list of assets and contacts should include that information.
Pelko also suggests separate letters that explain the intent of a will, especially if someone might be confused by a certain strategy — or hurt by being overlooked. She encourages them in cases of remarriage, when a parent wants to leave more to a less-established child, or if a child gets nothing due to an addition to the family or other factor.
Though it is not legally binding, those letters could help uphold a will in the case of a challenge.
Memorandum to a will
Have a beautiful hutch for your niece, or an antique rifle to pass on to a grandson? A will dictates who gets a person’s assets, “but the memorandum can really help address your wishes,” Pelko says.
“Personally, I love them because the thing people argue about is generally not money,” Baer says. “It’s that creepy little doll that you and your sister both want.”
A will must specifically refer to a memorandum, but the memo itself can exist outside the will as an informal designation of specific property. Baer has seen clients tag items in a home with sticky notes for the intended or a legal pad listing sentimental giveaways. Initials and a date are required on the memorandum.
Again, someone must know the memorandum exists — and not to throw away that notepad or sticky notes, thinking they are trash.
A trust can be written into a will or free-standing. While they may protect assets (such as a family farm) for the foreseeable future, they could be critical for special-needs children, too.
Specifically, a third-party trust allows assets to cover costs associated with caring for an individual without increasing their income so that they no longer qualify for programs like Medicaid or Social Security Disability. That can be critical in the case of disabled adults, who would quickly spend down their inheritance and need help requalifying for government aid again later.
Baer reiterated the importance of keeping this where it can be found quickly, most likely with the will that references its creation.
Many people fill out beneficiary forms when they open a new account and never revisit the matter. Sometimes, no designation is made at all.
Individuals should update them to reflect major changes in their lives, inheritance strategies or just every three to five years as a matter of course, Pelko says. It can be an opportunity to review how beneficiary designations match up with a will’s handling of non-designated assets.
Key accounts important to check are those pertaining to life insurance and retirement, Goff says.
In some cases, it can be smart to let a designee know they should expect something at death. Listing their names and contact information on your list will help expedite the process.
Pelko, a certified financial planner, may suggest changes in designations so that a child can inherit the family home and afford to pay their inheritance tax.
“My experience is that this is sometimes an uncomfortable subject to talk about or the decisions are harder than they think,” she says. “But really, you need to make it like the dentist. Just get in the habit.”